Most children and adults in the United States get far more than the recommended amount of sugar in their diet each day. Perhaps most troubling: Children ages 9 to 18 actually consume more sugar than adults, and even children between the ages of 4 and 8 get about 21 teaspoons of sugar per day. While the recommended intake varies a bit depending on who's setting the guideline, kids are consuming more sugar than is healthy.
Sugar Recommendations for Kids
Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the World Health Organization recommend everyone consume no more than 10 percent of daily calories from added sugars. For a person who needs 1200 calories -- which includes some 4- to 8-year-olds -- 10 percent of calories translates to 120 calories or no more than 8 teaspoons of added sugar daily. However, using this 10 percent rule may still be too much sugar for kids.
In fact, the American Heart Association has set lower guidelines for sugar consumption: Children up to age 8 should take in no more than 3 to 4 teaspoons of added sugar per day. Older kids and teenagers should limit themselves to no more than 5 to 8 teaspoons of added sugar each day. For reference, half of can of soda -- just 6 ounces -- contains about 5 teaspoons of sugar.
Implications of High Sugar Intake in Kids
It's unhealthy for your child to get too much sugar for a number of reasons. First, the sugar calories take the place of those from a more nutritious food, making it harder for the child to receive enough of the nutrients she needs to stay healthy. For example, a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2005 found that calcium intake was often too low in children who consumed 16 percent or more of their calories from sugar. Even if getting enough nutrients isn't an issue for a particular child, high amounts of sugar may increase the risk for obesity and all the related health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease. Kids are also more likely to get cavities if they eat a lot of sugary foods, particularly if they aren't diligent about proper brushing and flossing.
Although sugar is often thought to cause hyperactivity, the link between the two isn't clearly defined, reports an article published in Yale Scientific in 2010; however, eating sugary foods may cause spikes in blood sugar and adrenaline that can make children more active and decrease their attention span for a short time.
Limiting Daily Sugar Consumption
Desserts, soft drinks and fruit-flavored drinks are among the main sources of added sugar for kids. Added sugars are also found in a lot of places you might not expect, such as breads, bagels, frozen pizzas, salad dressing, cereals and condiments. Read labels and choose the brands with less sugar when possible to help limit overall sugar intake. If your kids won't give up their favorite sugary cereal, have them mix the sweet cereal with a healthier variety that contains more fiber and a lot less sugar. Buy plain yogurt and oatmeal and add your own extras to give it more flavor without too much additional sugar, such as fruits and nuts, with maybe a small swirl of honey or maple syrup.
Recommended Sugar Sources
Most of the sugar kids get through their diet should come from naturally occurring sugars in foods -- such as those found in plain milk and fruits -- and not added sugars. For this reason, most sugar guidelines note the recommended limit for added sugars and don't include sugars found naturally in foods. Foods that contain naturally-occurring sugars typically also contain other essential nutrients, including fiber, vitamins and minerals, while many foods high in added sugars -- such as cookies, candies, cakes, soda and ice cream -- are relatively nutrient poor.
Label Reading Tips
Check both the total sugar content and the ingredients. Labels don't actually separate added sugars from naturally-occurring sugars, but the ingredients list can help you narrow down where most of the sugar is coming from since the ingredients are listed by weight. Plain yogurt won't list any sweeteners in the ingredients list, for example, even though it contains sugar from the lactose that occurs naturally in the milk. Added sugars can be listed under many names: Remember that any word that ends in "ose," or any type of syrup, fruit juice concentrate, molasses, honey or corn sweetener are all sugar.
- American Heart Association: Sugar 101
- Circulation: Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health
- Parents: Sugar Shock
- BJC School Outreach and Youth Development: Adding It Up: How Much Sugar Should Youth Consume?
- CBS News: Kids Eat Too Much Added Sugar
- The Journal of Pediatrics: Adverse Effect of High Added Sugar Consumption on Dietary Intake in American Preschoolers
- National Kidney Foundation: 5 Sneaky Sources of Sugar
- Yale Scientific: Does Sugar Really Make Children Hyper?
- Yale Health: Be a Sugar Detective