Holiday Sweets & Treats: Stressed About Sugar?

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‘Tis the season where all the sweets and treats packed with sugar are everywhere. 

There are treats at school for special holiday occasions, batches of cookies made at home, holiday events with family and friends, gift baskets, and cookie platters. All the treats seem to add up. How do you teach your child balance and let them have the sweets and enjoy the fun?

Sugar can be a hot topic that parents often have an opinion about. I’ll share my professional thoughts and advice about sugar so that you can make informed decisions for your family about the sweets and treats that are often around during the holidays.

Is it better to make the treats lighter in sugar? Or is it better to allow your kids to have treats because it’s the holidays and it’s okay to indulge occasionally?

I won’t sugar coat it (see what I did there?!), there is not one right answer! However, I’ll walk you through the important information you need to know about sugar, and then you can make your own decision that is right for your family.

What is Sugar?

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate. Our bodies use carbohydrates for quick and easy forms of energy. Common sugar molecules are glucose, fructose (sugar in fruit), sucrose (white table sugar), lactose (found in dairy).

What is the Recommendation?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2020-2025), have a very general recommendation for Americans ages 2 years and older to limit added sugar intake to less than 10% of their total daily calories, which is about 12 teaspoons (about 50 grams) based on eating 2,000 calories per day. It is important to note that this is not a recommendation – it is a limit!

However, a more specific and age appropriate recommendation comes from the American Heart Association (AHA) recommending that children ages 2-18 years consume less than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day (about 25 grams). 

Both organizations recommend that children under the age of 2 consume no added sugar. I’ll go into more detail below about how to manage these recommendations.

Naturally Occurring Sugar in Foods

Sugar is present in some foods, which is called naturally occurring sugar. These are known as:

  • Glucose
  • Lactose
  • Fructose
  • Sucrose

For example, dairy foods contain lactose, which is the name of the sugar molecule that occurs in dairy. Additionally, fruits and vegetables contain natural sugars. However, they also contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. While these foods contain naturally occurring sugar, they also contain important nutrition components.

You may be surprised to learn that the white granulated sugar you are familiar with is a naturally occurring sugar. It is derived from sugar beets. Cane sugar is very similar and is derived from sugar cane. You read that right: sugar is natural and plant based. 

Added Sugar

Sugar that is not naturally present in foods but added as a part of the food manufacturing is considered added sugar. It can be added to foods for a variety of reasons including for sweetness, preservation, texture, or holding contents with its stickiness. Often it is added to basic items like condiments, dressings, sauces, breads, cereals, and granola bars. For example, an Annie’s Chocolate Chip Granola Bar has 7 grams of added sugar, and two tablespoons of Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ Sauce has 16 grams of added sugar.

White sugar, honey, maple syrup and molasses are considered added sugar because, simply, they are usually added to foods for a variety of purposes. While they are naturally present in nature, they are usually added to foods during processing.  

Typical foods that contain added sugar are: 

  • Sweetened beverages (soda/pop, energy drinks, sports drinks)
  • Candy
  • Fruit drinks
  • Treats like cookies and cakes
  • Pastry items like doughnuts
  • Ice cream

But as I mentioned earlier, you can be surprised (and agast) at how much sugar is added to things that seem healthy, like yogurt and cereal. 

Hidden Sugar

When reading the ingredient list on food labels, keep a lookout for these sweeteners, which are forms of added sugar: agave nectar, brown sugar, cane sugar, corn sweetener, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, honey, maple syrup, molasses, and raw sugar.

Too Much Sugar is Not Good for Health

Sugar does not add any nutrients to foods. It only adds calories. Extra calories can contribute to weight gain, leading to obesity. Added sugar can lead to other health detriments over time such as obesity, which can lead to health issues like high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Sugar on Food Labels

Naturally Occurring Sugar versus Added Sugar on Food Label

You’ll find sugar in the Total Carbohydrate section on food labels, listed in grams. Additionally, total sugars and added sugars are separate items on food labels. To help you think through this, there are about 4 grams of sugar in every teaspoon. If a food item lists 12 grams of added sugar, then it contains about 3 teaspoons of added sugar.

This can add up fast. Common breakfast items that may seem like a healthy option like cereal or flavored yogurts can contain 10-14 grams of added sugar per serving, unintentionally starting the day nearly half the recommended limit of added sugars for children.

When items don’t have a food label, like bakery goods or treats at a party, you can assume the items contain added sugar. Of course, it is difficult to estimate the amount of added sugar for each item. To put one example into perspective, one common bakery cupcake can contain about 40 grams of added sugar (depending on the amount of frosting!).

Restricting Sugar and Sweets Will Backfire

Any form of restriction of food will likely cause a person to want the food even more. If you do not let your child have sugar or only allow it in small quantities, it will cause them to desire it more.

Even though sugar does not offer any nutritional benefits, it is found in many enjoyable foods. Restricting enjoyable foods is very hard, and can bring harm to a person’s relationship with food. It is important to allow your children to have sweet indulgences once in a while so that they can learn, over time, how to limit sugar and sweets themselves without having their parents restrict their food choices.

Allowing your child to enjoy sweet treats will give them the opportunity to enjoy food for what it is – FOOD! Yes, good nutrition is important. However, food is important for many aspects of life.

Food is More than Nutrition Alone

Of course, food is necessary to sustain us, and we want to eat food that tastes good. However, food is more than nutrition. Food is a part of our family traditions, culture, connecting and socializing, celebrations, and can be fulfilling in so many ways.

One of my favorite holiday traditions is making Christmas cookies with my girls. We bake, cut and decorate so many cookies. Of course, we enjoy many at home, and we love to give the remaining cookies away to family and friends to enjoy as well. This time together is so special!

Keep an open mind that if sugar is put on a pedestal when your kids are young, then it can become a bigger issue later in life. For now, in the day to day, I recommend creating a structure for your family where sugar is allowed in appropriate quantities and in certain circumstances.

In my family, this looks like enjoying Christmas cookies for days and indulging in pumpkin pie around Thanksgiving! These holiday traditions are fun and we make wonderful memories each year. My day to day structure allows for some sweets and desserts throughout the week and many days without added treats. This works because my kids know dessert is not to be expected at each meal and that we’ll have desserts occasionally throughout the week when it works.

Can My 1-Year-Old Have Some Treats?

From a public health perspective, it seems reasonable to recommend that children under the age of 2 should not consume added sugar. However, from a practicality standpoint, it is not very realistic for most families. Many foods contain added sugars from processing, as previously discussed, and it would be difficult for most families to completely avoid added sugar.

It is reasonable for a 1-year-old to enjoy birthday cake on their special day. Holiday desserts are special. Older kids may eat sweets occasionally, and it is likely the 1-year-old is around during those meals. 

I recommend limiting added sugar to the best of your ability for your 1-year-old, but be as realistic as you can with the foods you provide for your family. For example, if you have the option not to give your little one an added sweet treat, avoid it. However, there is no immediate need to stress about the added sugar found in a common food item like pasta sauce.

Food Access

On the other hand, families may not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables and may need to purchase processed foods that fit their personal budget. Processed foods often contain more added sugar than fresh foods, so it would be unfair to hold this standard when these foods are affordable and available.

Stress Less About Sugar

Here are my top tips to stress less about sugar intake with your kids every day, and around the holidays.

Top Tips to Stress Less About Sugar
  • Don’t make sugar a big deal
    • If you are anxious about sugar, your kids will pick up on that too
  • Keep your foods balanced
    • If you choose to eat sweets and treats, remember to eat healthy foods throughout the day
  • You decide when sweets and treats are served
  • Try serving them with a meal
    • This takes sugar off of a pedestal and allows your child to choose between eating all the foods in front of them
  • Don’t use treats as a reward
    • Dessert should not be used as a bribe to finish or take more bites of broccoli
  • Read nutrition facts labels
    • Be aware of the added sugar in foods as a part of the total sugars
  • Limit sugar sweetened beverages
    • Sugar sweetened beverages like soda/pop, energy drinks, fruit drinks, kool-aid should be served sparingly

How to Stress Less About Sweets and Treats

Let your kids enjoy cookies and holiday treats. Better yet, enjoy the treats alongside your kids! 

Make memories with your family and enjoy the special moments without worrying about eating a treat now and then. 

When you have had enough, demonstrate this so that your child can learn the balance between enjoying a treat versus indulging until overfull. If you want your child to have a good relationship with food, it starts with you!

Think of your total daily meals and snacks, and focus on eating foods that are nutritious and from all the major food groups. Consume sweets and treats sparingly, and intentionally, understanding that while not full of nutrition, foods with sugar are delicious and can absolutely be included regularly, especially during holidays and fun occasions. 

You decide what feels right for your family!

I’m Here To Help!

If you’re looking for more guidance on feeding your kids, I am here for you! You are welcome to set up a call with me to discuss how I can partner with you to take the stress out of mealtimes.