By Nora Heston Tarte

We hear it everyday. The food we eat in America is unhealthy, packed with high fructose corn syrup, preservatives and outrageous levels of sugar. There are 44 grams of sugar in a can of Coke, but sugar hides in unexpected places, too. For example, there are 36 grams in the same amount of apple juice, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Keeping our kids healthy is multi-faceted. Requiring exercise, administering vitamins and preparing healthful meals are just some of the steps we take to ensure overall wellness. Too often, however, we overlook the presence of sugar in our diet.

Not-so-sweet side effects:

Research has recently debunked myths that kids get “sugar-high,” or that sugar is directly related to hyperactivity, but there are still a slew of risks associated with too much sugar for kids.

“Choosing too many foods that are processed with added sugars alongside a sedentary lifestyle may lead to poor nutrition, tooth decay, obesity as well as other health issues,” says Rebecca Jordan, registered dietician at Honor Health Diabetes Center.

Research has linked consuming sugary beverages with type 2 diabetes. Too much sugar can also contribute to weight gain, and obesity is another risk factor for diabetes. More than 5,000 youth were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2008 and 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

In the most extreme cases, too much sugar intake can be linked to death. High levels of sugar consumption have been associated with heart disease. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that participants who consumed 25 percent or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die of heart disease than those who took in less than 10 percent added sugar.

Start ‘em young:

Adults can develop type 2 diabetes, too. In fact, the CDC stated 1.7 million people over the age of 20 were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2012. Learning healthy habits at a young age, however, can impact your propensity to develop the disease at a later date.

“Children learn healthy (or unhealthy) eating habits at a very young age,” says Leonora Renda, a registered dietician at Saint Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. “Sugary foods have a lot of ‘empty’ calories—they are often high in fat and calories but have little nutritional value.”

Kids need nutritious foods to grow. Poor nutrition can lead to obesity. In 2012, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.

“Some reasons why obesity in young children is on the rise is because of limited intake of fruits and vegetables, too much intake of sugary beverages and fast food, predominance of convenience foods, and lack of family meals,” Renda says. “Being overweight is a risk to physical and mental health.”

“It is important for children to learn to choose healthy foods, limit added sugars and participate in frequent physical activity. These fundamentals can set the stage for lives as healthy adults,” Jordan says.

Get involved:

Parents can help their children live healthy lives by instilling important nutritional values at a young age and creating healthy relationships with food.

Its hard to give exact parameters of how much sugar is okay to consume because food labels base everything on a 2,000 calorie diet, which isn’t always the norm.

“The focus should be to limit free sugars,” Jordan explains. “Foods high in free sugars are typically processed and provide less nutritional benefit than foods that are nutrient dense. Free sugars can be found in foods like syrup, sauces, candies, desserts, some processed grains/cereals, honey, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.”

Sugar exists in other foods like fruit but there are major differences between these natural sugars and the processed sugars found in many snacks. Selecting nutrient-dense whole foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and low-fat dairy makes a difference, according to Jordan.

To set kids up for success, take a few steps to encourage healthy eating habits. Jordan suggests keeping junk food out of the house so it isn’t tempting and teaching kids portion control so they aren’t overindulging. Choose whole grain items over refined grains and encourage a balance of healthy carbohydrates, fat and protein in your child’s diet. Make healthy snacks accessible by keeping them on hand and in-reach of little hands. Limiting snacking is also key. Designating a specific time and place for snacking can help cut down on impulse eating.

“Offering fruits and vegetables is a great way to make sure that children eat all the vitamins they need without adding a lot of extra calories that could lead to weight gain,” Renda adds. “Try serving fruits and vegetables without adding ranch dressing, butter, lard, sugar, or other sauces. These not only add calories and fat, but also mask the taste of the fruit/vegetable so the child never learns what it should taste like by itself.”

Change bad habits, too. Instead of rewarding kids with food items, or offering up cookies to soothe “owies,” use other rewards like stickers, pencils or compliments, Renda suggests. While giving candy as a reward may help in the short term, she warns that it could encourage an unhealthy relationship with food later in life. You can also reprogram a child’s mindset about celebratory foods by swapping cake, ice cream and candy for healthier sweets like fruit, popsicles and low-fat muffins at special events.

Be persistent:

Children who resist a change in diet aren’t lost causes. There’s plenty parents can do to help. Jordan recommends encouraging healthy eating by making healthy food fun, using colorful foods and mixing and matching and utilizing cookie cutters to create fun shapes.

Renda suggests leading by example. “Parents can show that healthy eating is fun by modeling healthy choices and helping to create a pleasant social environment around the table,” she says. “Gently encourage, but don’t force children to try a bite of a new food. Children may need to see a new food at least ten times before they’ll actually try it.”

Continue to engage your child in healthy eating by offering healthful foods but allowing them to decide what and how much to eat. Let them help create the meals, do the grocery shopping and cook. Most important, don’t give up!

Serving suggestions:

Stumped on what to feed your kids? That’s completely understandable! With so many foods that disguise themselves as healthy, it’s hard to decipher what items are truly good for children. Use some of Jordan’s suggestions below to get started on your healthy eating journey. Soon, it’ll be second nature!

1) Small piece of fruit with natural nut/seed butter
2) Fruit and cheese kebobs
3) Whole wheat toast with natural peanut butter
4) Greek yogurt with fresh fruit or healthy granola
5) Cottage cheese and vegetables or fresh fruit
6)Fresh vegetables with dip
7) Low fat bean dip or guacamole with whole grain chips or crackers
8) Oatmeal made with low fat milk mixed with unsweetened cinnamon applesauce
9) Edamame
10) Quesadilla made with low fat cheese and whole-wheat tortilla

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