Sugar is a hot topic, anywhere you look. Nowadays sugar has quickly replaced fat as being the most demonized nutrient.
It's no wonder you might be feeling confused about sugar for your child.
Many parents are also faced with their own held beliefs about sugars and sweet foods from their upbringing and how these foods were approached by caregivers growing up.
To make this simpler. I'm going to break this down into 2 parts: "added sugars" and "sweets"
Read Part 2 here.
Part 1: Added Sugars
Many health authorities recommend limiting added sugar, especially for young children and avoiding added sugar for babies and toddlers under 24 months.
As a pediatric dietitian, there are two main reasons I recommend avoiding free sugars as much as possible for babies and young toddlers:
1. Full of sugar
One of the main troubles with added sugar is that, compared to naturally sweet foods like fruit and milk, foods with added sugars tend to have limited nutritional quality. Babies and toddlers have small stomachs (and sometimes small appetites) so it is important to ensure that the little food they do eat is full of nutrients for healthy growth and development.
Filling up their bellies with sweet foods can mean less room for nutritious meals and snacks.
2. Preference for sweet
The first few years of eating have a big impact on later food preferences. The foods children eat around age 2 can predict food preferences for their entire life. Offering a wide variety of tastes teaches young children about all of the flavours that exist naturally in food rather than only tasting foods that are sweet.
For example, if a toddler's diet consists mostly of:
sweetened breakfast cereal,
pasta with sweetened sauce,
sweetened bread with sweetened peanut butter,
sweetened granola bars,
and packaged snacks...
they will very likely reject any foods that don't have that consistent sweet flavour.
Is all added sugar created equally?
In terms of pediatric nutrition? Yes.
Nutritionally, your body (and your child's body) doesn't really care whether you are eating refined white sugar or organic fair trade raw cane sugar. Sugar is sugar and all "free" sugars will act similarly in the body.
The sugar naturally occurring in foods, however, like fruit, milk, and some vegetables are not considered "free sugars" because they come along with fibre, protein, and/or fat plus vitamins and minerals so they are providing more to the diet than just sweetness.
Here are some examples of free sugars:
refined white sugar
What about maple syrup and honey?
Maple syrup and honey do provide trace amounts of minerals that white sugar doesn't but these products should not be relied upon for nutrient intake.
(There is definitely a social and environmental difference between purchasing maple syrup and honey from your local farmers vs. buying packaged sugar so this is a choice to make based on your own family values.)
This doesn't mean homemade baked goods made with sugar are off-limits, but there are plenty of recipes out there for using fruit purees, dates, unsweetened applesauce, or mashed bananas instead of free sugars which will add some fibre and vitamins along with the sugar.
What about fruit juice?
Fruit juice for young children can contribute to dental decay, diarrhea, and displacement of important nutrients from food. Fruit juice lacks the fibre of whole fruit and can quickly fill up small bellies making less room for more nutritious foods in the diet.
Try to focus on water as the main beverage in your child's diet (or breastmilk, or formula for babies under 12 months).
Rather than getting upset when your child eats food with added sugars, forbidding your child to eat them, or complaining about how "unhealthy" they are, focus instead on providing a wide variety of nutritious foods in your child's diet and staying neutral about sweet foods. More on that in part 2.
See part 2 for info on sweet & desserts and handling sweets with your older toddler.
The nutrition information contained in this resource is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician, registered dietitian, or other qualified healthcare provider with respect to any questions you my have regarding the nutritional requirements based upon a medical condition. Reliance upon any content provided in this resource is solely at your own risk. Speak with you health provider if you suspect your child may have a condition or delay that would prevent them from eating safely.