Feeding the Family: Managing Added Sugar in Your Home

One of the toughest things to do as a parent is really keep control of the food that your kids are eating. Well, I know for our house, this has been one of the toughest things.

Both my husband and I work, and I'm the one that tends to take charge of what our family is eating. I’m the one doing the grocery shopping, and I’m generally the one prepping meals. What we have found is that when I'm away from the house, especially during times of the year when I’m working a lot, we tend to default to convenient foods for the kids instead of the healthiest ones. It took us a little while to realize that there were consequences to this pattern of eating.

These consequences became clear around seven months ago, when my eight year old started expressing body image issues.

“Water or milk?” The beverage choice my kids are given daily.

“Water or milk?” The beverage choice my kids are given daily.

One of the best things to do with kids, especially around this age, is to only give them access to food choices that you - as the parent - are comfortable with them having, not telling them they can’t have certain foods. What I mean is, avoid labeling foods as good and bad. Avoid having to say no to choices too terribly often. I believe our job as parents is to make sure that they're having options that are appropriate based on what our perspective is. And my family got to a point where we were regularly giving the kids access to things that were not appropriate from my perspective.

When my daughter began expressing body image issues, the importance of nutrition to my family was solidified. I thought for certain one of her friends must have said something, as I knew she was not hearing disparaging body image comments at home. But it turned out this was a self assessment.

This made us look at some of the food habits that were going on at our house for the cause. We had known for a while that the sugar consumption in our house was more than I thought it should be. I say that because most families are consuming massive amounts of sugar every day and not even realizing it. Within my house, I thought I was very well aware of the sugar consumption.

Even after having several conversations with my husband and the kids about making good healthy choices, in my opinion we were still consuming too much sugar. Right around the time my daughter was dealing with these body image issues, I read a statistic from the World Health Organization(WHO) that said the maximum recommended added sugar intake for children to be four teaspoons per day. When I heard that, I thought, oh, wow, let me see where we are stacking up against this.

Reducing free sugars intake to less than 10% of total daily energy intake was recommended by the WHO Study Group for the first time in 1989 and was further elaborated by a joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation in 2002. This new updated WHO guideline calls for further reduction of free sugars intake to less than 5% of total energy intake if possible.
— World Health Organization

We had already been working on choosing healthier food options, but I wanted to see the kind of added sugar intake we were working with anyway.  The next time as I was at the grocery store, I really looked at the packaging of certain things we usually have to see how much sugar was in them. Because I very rarely eat processed foods, I wasn’t tuning into this as much as I should have been. I’m okay with having some convenient processed foods around the house because of the kids, but it’s not necessarily something I’ll indulge in myself.

Back to the WHO statistics, 4 teaspoons of sugar is 16g of added sugar per day. Breakfast itself gave us 12/16g of added sugar recommended per day for children. This is because I was giving them a convenient option, the “uncrustable sandwich”. They love these for breakfast. It's easy, and they eat it every time. It's got a decent amount of protein on it’s own, and we also add a glass of milk to it as well. It has an appropriate amount of carbohydrates and an appropriate amount of fat. But again, when you look to the sugar specifically, it was like whoa, at breakfast, we're already getting three quarters of our sugar allowance for the day. So then I started looking at other things that I was giving them,  take bread as an example. This is an item I would take a look at in your household, because the results surprised me. The particular bread we use has 4 grams of added sugar per two slices. What the heck! So just the bread for their lunch sandwiches plus the uncrustable sandwich for breakfast already got us to the max added sugar intake the WHO recommends.

So what did I do? Well, I started looking in other places as well. After factoring in the other common foods/snack the kids normally have, the total started piling up big time, probably around 25-30g/day. Keep in mind my kids are not allowed to have sugary drinks, they are only typically drinking water or milk. So for many kids, their total added sugar intake may be much higher.

This caused me to double down on my efforts to get these other processed/packaged foods out of our house. You will find added sugars in meat products, chicken nuggets, pizza, pasta sauce, ketchup, it is all kinds of places that you would not think it needs to be. And it truly does not need to be there. But it reduces the cost and makes it slightly more palatable, training us to continue to just get that sugar fix. This is how the companies that make these products keep us coming back for more.

And it's so tough to get rid of. So I just wanted to bring this to light, because this was something that I felt like we can always do better with. We could all have more salads or fresh vegetables, more fruits, whatever it might be. I did not at the time think that we would be massively over that sugar total. I'm sure we were easily doubling it. And I think at this point, you know, on certain days, we still double it. But I do my best to minimize the food that's in the house that has added sugars. And the kids and I have conversations about these things because I want them to understand. It's not just NO, this is bad. It's okay, we ate something earlier that had a lot of sugar in it, and they begin to understand why that's not good and why it's not good for them to have too much in a day. They understand why they feel differently when they’ve had a really sweet dessert.

My daughter in particular loves the uncrustables and breads, while my son is more interested in a variety of breakfasts. So for her, we still leave the uncrustables and breads in there for her because that’s what she likes. However, they don’t get dessert type foods with their lunch, it's just fresh fruit, veggies, applesauce, or even pretzels/tortilla chips because there is no added sugar.

And as we talked about, I'm sticking with the bread that they like, even with the extra teaspoon of added sugar. So that's where we are right now. The result was that my daughter started feeling better about how she looked. She does/did have a little bit of a child’s tummy that goes away as they grow and get taller, but hers was probably more than she wanted. She may or may not have lost excess body fat, but you know, most importantly, she's much happier with herself at this point. Starting to help her understand that what goes in your mouth is fuel was helpful in this regard. Excess sugar does affect your mental/physical state, both in how you look and how you feel/perform. You may feel a little foggy throughout the day, or your stomach may be a little more bloated than normal when you eat more sugar than you need. This is something you can add to the conversation with your kids, to help them realize why they want to make these healthy choices.

Changing what your kids eat is as simple as what you buy and keep in the house. It really is.

People come up with all kinds of excuses on why they can't make changes, or they want a formal assessment on why their child is overweight. Well, I hate to break it to you, but you're the one that is responsible for that as the parent. The parents set the example, the parent purchases the food, it's the parents responsibility.

I took it as my responsibility to get things a little bit more aligned to what our values are and what I think is important for my children's health and growth. These are all personal decisions. But when we went in and looked at what was actually in our house, it was like holy smokes, we gotta get some of this stuff out. This can't be in here.

So take a look, it's a fun little challenge. See what you think your kids are actually getting in, see what you're getting. Try and get close to the WHO recommendation. And just be ready to be blown away.