5 ways to reduce sugar in a child’s diet
Despite the increasing child obesity epidemic in Malaysia and expert advice, sugar intake among Malaysian pre-schoolers are still high.
There’s sugar everywhere we turn. A typical child’s day starts with either a peanut butter and jam sandwich or sugary cereals for breakfast, and then on to biscuits and fruit drinks for snacks, muffins and cupcakes for tea, ice cream and cake for dessert.
And if that’s not bad enough, children are given lollipops, cotton candies and chocolates for snacks and fizzy drinks every other time in between. Despite the increasing child obesity epidemic in Malaysia and expert advice, sugar intake among Malaysian pre-schoolers are still high. Parents must realise that sugar is not a food group and should be avoided.
While most sugary foods can be easily recognised, a lot of the sugars consumed by children are hidden in the food and beverages they take. Even some milk contains added sugars! According to the Malaysian Dietitians’ Association, in general, all packaged beverages contain added sugar, even those marketed for specific health benefits, unless stated otherwise.
Many of the beverages contain very little or no nutrients, but contain food additives and colourings instead. These beverages are not just bad for the child’s teeth but are also empty calories. Taking too much empty calories and encouraging a taste for sweets may lead to excessive calorie intake which in the long run may lead to childhood obesity.
In a study by Robert Lustig, paediatric endocrinologist at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco, published in the journal Obesity, removing sugar from diet for just nine days can have dramatic results. His research found that the children’s cholesterol improved and their insulin levels dropped and everything got better.
The idea is to replace the sugary foods in a child’s diet without eliminating carbohydrates. The sugary food is replaced with nutritional starchy foods while maintaining body weight and calorie intake.
Foods with added sugars can be removed from a child’s diet and replaced with a no-added-sugar version, which can be made up from food that contains only natural sugars. Keeping a food diary of what your children eat will probably shock you into reducing the added sugars right away.
Young children should only be drinking water and milk. Reduce and eliminate fizzy drinks altogether and cut down on other sugary drinks. It is always better to make the change gradually, so you can start by giving them fizzy water with a little bit of juice to wean them off.
For kids who are already drinking too much sugary drinks, try weaning them off by adding a bit of water to dilute it each time you serve them. However, do expect some tantrums along the way, but perseverance is the key to make this change!
Some of us have started our kids on added sugars without even realising – with growing up milk! Check your product label to ensure that it has no added sugars. The added sugars can be spotted on the Ingredients List and come in various names such as fructose, glucose, glucose syrup solids, maltodextrin, corn syrup, corn syrup solids and many more. Learn the names of added sugars and look out for it in the labels the next time you go shopping.
Cooking at home is without a doubt the best choice but with the rise of working parents, this can prove to be a challenge. Spend more time cooking over the weekend and planning the menu for the week and freeze portions. Sauces are one of the main sources of hidden added sugars.
Once you’ve removed the added sugars from your little one’s diet, you’ll see how much easier it is to get them to eat whole foods such as vegetables and fruits. Children should eat 4-5 servings of vegetables and fruits per day such as apples, carrots, broccoli, and bananas.
When your children are younger, it is easier to control what they eat as they are not exposed yet to the daily eating habits of other children. The longer they stay off added sugars, the more they will be able to appreciate healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables.
Pack their snack boxes for pre-school with fruits, a cheese sandwich, or boiled eggs if they like it. Cut out shapes on sandwiches to make it more interesting. Kids love to dip! Veggies with hummus or apple slices with yogurt are tasty and healthy combos.
There are so many interesting ideas for healthy snack boxes on Pinterest for the inspiration you need. As they get older, it will be harder to make that change as your kids will come back sullen with a half-eaten lunchbox when their friends had cookies and fizzy drinks.
More often than not, when kids get home from school, they are hungry. It is so tempting to just feed your kids the array of kuih-muihs that you can get easily at stalls around tea time when they get home from school. It is ok to let them have their favourite snack once in a while as long as you’re keeping track of their sugar intake for the rest of the day.
Best is to prepare the snacks ahead of time. A simple sandwich, or in the hot weather, fruit popsicles are a great way to get them to have more fruits and vegetables in their diets.
Stay away from processed foods such as ice cream, chocolate bar, and cookies as processed foods usually contain high amounts of sugar, which adds more calories and no nutritional value.
While it is important to reduce added sugar in your child’s diet, it is also important to have a variety of food to keep them looking forward to meal times. Do experiment with different types of foods as each child is different. Don’t just remove foods and limit the variety, instead replace them with something equally delicious but healthy, for instance when you remove ice cream, let them have a fruit popsicle made with yoghurt and fresh fruits, or better yet, make your own ice cream using the sweetness of fruits.
It takes a little effort but the creative journey is fun and you’ll have the peace of mind that you’re giving the best nutrition to your family.
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