5 Ways to Reduce a Child's Sugar Intake | From the Dietician

5 Easy Ways to Reduce Sugar in Your Child’s Diet

Sugar, sugar, everywhere: blueberry muffins and juice for breakfast. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich with fruit punch and Oreos for lunch. Fruit snacks and cupcakes at a school party. Ice cream with dinner.

As a nation – and even around the globe – we are eating far too much sugar every day, and our children are no exception.

In an effort to help combat the massive amounts of sugar humans are eating each day, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that children eat no more than 12 grams or 3 teaspoons of sugar per day. Similarly, the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines suggest that people eat less than 5% of their daily calories from sugar, versus the previous suggestion of 10%.

A survey commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control, called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that there are five categories of food and drinks from which children are getting excessive amounts of sugar each day:

  • Non-juice drinks, such as soda, and sports/energy drinks
  • Fruit drinks (including 100% fruit juice)
  • Grain-based sweets like snack cakes and cookies
  • Dairy desserts, such as puddings
  • Candy

I applaud the steps that the AHA and WHO are taking to bring attention to this issue, because excessive sugar intake is such a pervasive problem. However, I am worried that people will focus too much on this one aspect of their diets.

In my opinion, elimination of specific categories of foods misses the bigger picture. We’re not consuming as much of the foods we were designed to eat. Not enough “whole” foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and unprocessed meats.

If we ate mostly whole foods and less of processed foods, many of the diet-related diseases like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure could possibly be eliminated – or at least reduced significantly. The amount of sugar our children consumed would be drastically cut as well, because processed foods contain high amounts of sugar, which adds more calories and no nutritional value.

As a dietitian in the Center for Better Health and Nutrition, I think it’s a step in the right direction for anyone to reduce sugar as a way to promote a healthier lifestyle and ward off diet-related diseases. I also think that parents need practical suggestions that don’t require a lot of time and effort. So I’ve compiled five easy ways to reduce sugar in your child’s diet.

 5 Simple Ways to Reduce Sugar in Your Child’s Diet:

  1. Eliminate or drastically reduce sugary drinks. This includes sport/energy drinks, sodas, lemonade, fruit punch and even 100% fruit juice. Manufacturers of 100% fruit juice often add sugar to it. And even if there’s no sugar added to it, the process of juicing fruit typically eliminates the fiber once contained in the fruit. Thus, kids don’t feel full after drinking it and often overindulge.On average, a no-sugar-added 12-oz glass of orange or apple juice contains 40 grams of sugar. That’s the same as a can of cola. I suggest drinking more water and milk. Eat whole fruit instead (see #2).
  2. Serve more vegetables and fruits. Children (and even adults!) should eat 5-9 servings of produce per day such as apples, carrots, broccoli, bananas, and peppers. Whole fruit and vegetables contain water and fiber, which will help kids to feel full.  Plus, research tells us that chewing is an important part of satiety.
  3. Eat whole foods that aren’t processed. Eating more foods in their natural state will not only ensure that you know what is in them, but will eliminate added sugars.
  4. Cook more at home. I realize this is a tough one, but the more you can cook for your family at home, the more control you have over the foods that you eat. Restaurants often add sugar (and lots of salt and fat) to enhance the taste of the foods on their menu. But these additives aren’t necessary for making foods taste good.
  5. Pack snacks ahead of time. If you’re out and about with your kids, it’s tempting to give in and grab a snack from the candy aisle, snack counter, or vending machine. But if you plan ahead of time and bring snacks with you, it’s possible to avoid this scenario. Fruits, veggies and dips (hummus, nut butters), trail mix, and nuts all travel well.
If you have questions about our HealthWorks! Nutrition Program, or would like to schedule an appointment, please visit our webpage or call 513-636-4305.

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Barbara Lattin MS, RD, LD

About the Author: Barbara Lattin MS, RD, LD

Barbara Lattin, MS, RD, LD is a clinical dietitian with the Center for Better Health and Nutrition and the HealthWorks! programs at Cincinnati Children's Heart Institute. Barbara has been providing pediatric weight management services at Cincinnati Children’s for 5 years.

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  1. Natasha Raja, MD April 15, 17:10
    The statistics on our children's sugar intake is shocking. Great article and great tips! Thank you. Natasha Raja, MD, author of Parenting MD: Guide to Baby's First Year
  2. Nut Free Mama April 05, 12:57
    My three year old currently attends a "low sugar" school, so they only get about 7 grams of sugar with each meal, which makes me happy. We have nut allergies, so thankfully eating out is hardly ever an option for us. My biggest issue is breakfast. All she ever wants are Pop-Tarts. I hate that I ever purchased them now. I offer to switch that out with a sunbutter and jelly sandwich or some yogurt and toast when possible. The other nemeses are gummy snacks. The only juice we drink is the Honest juice, which, if you haven't tasted it, is hardly sweet at all. I just feel like at this age the only things that are marketed to them are sugary snacks...companies slap a Disney character on it and it's like pulling teeth to get them to try anything else.
  3. […] Now despite that fact that we can work to change access to sugar-sweetened beverages at home, there is further action that must be taken. According to the 2008 US Federal Trade Commission report, beverage companies spent $492 million on youth-directed efforts (Rogers, 1986). Advertising exposure to these unhealthy drinks is associated with increased consumption,while exposure during childhood can create a lasting bias towards advertised brands in adulthood (Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, 2014). The sugar-sweetened beverage industry is posing striking similarities to our tobacco industries, which advertise and market unhealthy products while exploiting our health. The second highest environment that sugar-sweetened beverages is consumed are at food service establishments and schools (Pomeranz, 2012). The marketing of unhealthy products to children is largely unregulated; this is because, as Pomeranz (2012) states, that as of the 1970s, the FDA has found that added sugar was generally recognized as safe. It may be difficult to curb your child’s sweet tooth, but here is a list of ways to help. 5 Ways to Reduce Child’s Sugar Intake […]
  4. Kristen February 05, 14:51
    This is a great article Barbara and something that thankfully more and more people are becoming aware of. It's so important to read nutritional labels these days and refrain from assuming that foods we consider to be healthy have small amounts of sugar. Things like yogurt, almond butter, and even wheat bread can contain significant amounts of sugar. Definitely double check that before giving it to your kids.
  5. Lisa Henke March 23, 07:10
    Thanks for the great info. I can only find a AHA reference to 25 grams of added sugar for kids. Would you share your reference to the 12 grams. So much changes. Lisa Henke NBC-HWC
    • Barbara Lattin MS, RD, LD
      Barbara Lattin MS, RD, LD Author March 29, 14:15
      Hi Lisa, Thanks for reaching out! The USDA & World Health Organization have lowered the recommendation down to no more than 5% of daily calories. The actual gram amount would be dependent on calorie needs -- the lower the calorie needs, the lower the gram recommendations. For example, if someone needs 1,000 calories a day, 5% would be no more than 100 calories from added sugars, or 12.5 grams.
      • Hi Barbara, Thank you for the article. I spend a lot of time trying to talk to families about their children's sugar intake! It is so difficult! Even at 25 gms a day - that is about 6 teaspoons. In my research, the average child gets 13 teaspoons a day, teens closer to 22 teaspoons per day (I dare say some much more). I do appreciate your suggestion to focus on general good nutrition and not just the sugars! Thank you.
  6. Lucy Grey July 31, 00:55
    Really amazing article!
  7. […] Pack snacks ahead of time. If you’re out and about with your kids, it’s tempting to give in and grab a snack from the candy aisle, snack counter, or vending machine.  But if you plan ahead of time and bring snacks with you, it’s possible to avoid this scenario.  Fruits, veggies and dips (hummus, nut butters), trail mix, and nuts all travel well (https://blog.cincinnatichildrens.org/healthy-living/5-simple-ways-to-reduce-sugar-in-your-childs-die…) […]
  8. […] like juice also contain high levels of sugar. It’s best to check the labels on all foods and cut back on sugar as much as […]