Feb. 29, 2012 at 8:02 AM ET
America’s intake of sugary foods and drinks has dropped in recent years, but U.S. kids are still consuming too much, government researchers say.
Contrary to popular belief, most of that sweet fare is coming from home, not from school or other settings, the researchers reported in a new study released by the National Center for Health Statistics.
For parents, that means that it’s even more important to monitor added sugars in kids’ diets, even those that aren’t so obvious.
“Added sugars are in sugar sweetened cereals, muffins -- even pasta sauce,” said Cynthia Ogden, the study’s co-author and an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “You can see it if you read the food labels.”
The report, which tracked consumption of added sugars by children and teens from 2005 to 2008, offered other unexpected findings, said Ogden.
Researchers also found that family income made no difference in children’s sugary diets.
“We found that all kids are eating a lot of added sugars,” she said.
Most of those sugars came from foods rather than beverages, another surprise, Ogden said.
Overall, about 16 percent of the calories in the average American child’s diet came from “added sugars” -- sweeteners used in the making of foods such as breads, cakes, soft drinks, jams, chocolates and ice cream.
What’s scary is that the sweets count didn’t include naturally occurring sugars in items such as fruit and fruit juice.
The good news is that in teens, at least, consumption of added sugars appears to have declined a bit, from 22 percent to 17 percent of total calories, Ogden said.
Still, that’s higher than federal dietary guidelines, which recommend that the total intake of discretionary calories, including added sugars and solid fats, be limited to 5 percent to 15 percent of daily caloric intake.
Dr. Wendy Slusser, a weight control expert, suspects that some of the new study’s findings might be explained by successful campaigns to get sugary drinks out of schools.
"Other studies have shown that a good proportion of added sugars are being consumed outside the home,” said Slusser, an associate clinical professor of medicine at the Mattel Children’s Hospital at the University of California, Los Angeles and medical director for the UCLA Fit for Healthy Weight Program at Mattel. “So we’re probably seeing a drop in consumption outside the home.”
That means the next focus for intervention may be helping parents to choose healthier options for their kids to eat at home, Slusser said.
“This is an opportunity for families,” Slusser said. “There are estimates now that we could shift children’s weights back to 1970s levels if we could just take 350 calories out of a kid’s diet each day.”
One place to look is beverages, Slusser said. Some of the biggest culprits are 10 percent fruit juice drinks and sports drinks.
“Parents think they’re doing what they’re supposed to when they give their kids sports drinks on a hot day,” she said. “If you substitute water for sugary drinks, that’s a huge step in the right direction.”
Another place to lower sugar levels is in breakfast cereals, Slusser said. “You might want to give them regular Cheerios instead of Honey Nut Cheerios,” she suggested.
Avoiding processed foods is another way to skip the added sugars, noted Ogden. Choosing fresh foods and carefully reading labels of packaged goods can help.
The best way to cut down on added sugars in a kid’s diet is to make healthy eating part of the family routine, Slusser said. Make sure to leave time for a good breakfast in the morning and plan ahead for healthy snacks after school and nutritious dinners at night.
“Once there’s a routine, parents can integrate healthier foods into their children’s diets,” she notes. “When you’re always eating on the fly, you end up eating too many processed foods.”