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How a 'sugar budget' helped one family eat healthier

Paddy Spence devised the simple game to help his kids learn good eating habits in a way that’s fun.
spoon with lump sugar
The American Heart Association recommends limiting children's added sugar intake to 25 grams or less (about six teaspoons) per day.ullstein bild / Getty Images

Like most parents, Paddy Spence doesn’t want his daughters eating too much junk food. He also doesn’t want to be the dad who won’t let his kids have fun.

“At the end of the day, it’s horrible to be the parent who’s just wagging your finger and saying ‘No,’” Spence tells NBC News BETTER. “Why not let your kid make those choices herself and actually feel great about them?”

Spence, the CEO of Zevia, a popular natural diet soda brand, doesn’t tell his kids what to eat. Instead, he puts them on a “sugar budget” and lets them choose how to spend their own calories.

His kids may go over on some days, he says, which means they’ll need to figure out how to adjust their budget for the following day.

“Like any budget, it’s all about making sensible tradeoffs,” Spence says.

Spence and his wife Jerra devised the simple game to help their kids, ages 6 and 8, learn good eating habits in a way that’s fun. Their daughters are allowed to have 50 grams, or about 200 calories worth, of sugar a day, Spence says.

Spence says a sugar budget helps kids understand that healthier foods, like whole fruits and proteins, are more satisfying than sugary foods, while giving them a way to still enjoy sweets in small portions.

“As a parent I’m about controlling the overall level, and I’m not here to tell you how to consume your sugar,” he says. “And so that kind of choice is so exciting for kids because they quickly realize, technically, it’s the ice cream that’s going to win.”

I think it’s all about this idea of taking control of your own health, whether you’re doing it for yourself or for your kid.

How to get your kid started on a “sugar budget”

Get them a food journal

A food journal is a good way to get your kid started on a sugar budget because it will give him an understanding of what’s in the foods he eats, says Spence. For example, one cup of vanilla ice cream can clock in at 30 grams, taking up most of the sugar budget for the day. He says the journal will probably only need to be temporary.

“It’s like chores,” Spence says. “A lot of parents talk about having a log so that the kid knows when they’ve made their bed. After you’ve made your bed for a few months, you probably don’t need a log anymore.”

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

It may take your kid some time to change his or her eating habits, which may take some patience on your part, according to Spence. That’s ok, he says, because the goal is to teach kids good eating habits in the long term.

“I would say we try to keep it moderate and not over-controlled, and no one’s getting punished if they go over the budget,” Spence says. “It’s a little more informal than that because, frankly, this isn’t something we’re trying to do for a month — this is something we’re trying to do for the next 75 years with our kids.”

When starting your kid on a sugar budget, Spence recommends having them count only 50 grams of added, or processed, sugars at first. During this time, he recommends encouraging them to select whole fruits over fruit juice.

Once they start to get the hang of things, he says, reduce their budget to 50 grams of both added and natural sugars per day combined, while encouraging them to choose fruits over processed sugar.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting children's added sugar intake to 25 grams or less (about six teaspoons) per day. Added sugars are sugars or syrups that are added to foods and drinks when they're being processed or added at the table, unlike the natural sugars found in fruit and milk.

“The first month might be rocky, and guess what? We might not be able to get to 50 grams,” says Spence, “but the second month we just want to be a little bit better.”

A better understanding of snacking

Spence says the sugar budget has helped his daughters understand the way snacking affects their hunger throughout the day.

For instance, if they have to choose between spending 20 grams of sugar on two lollipops versus a protein snack, they are more likely to choose the protein snack, he says.

“My kids know that a protein snack is probably going to still their hunger and their cravings more than a sugar snack, because they’ve seen that over and over again,” he says.

“The organic turkey jerky, which is a nice protein snack, fills them up — that agave lollipop, not so much,” he says.

Adults can do it too

Spence says he and his wife budget their own sugar intake, and have gotten healthier in the process.

“It’s been quite incredible,” says Spence. “The thing I felt first and most prominently was just much more even energy levels throughout the day.”

He says a low-sugar diet has a range of health benefits, from better heart health to improved blood pressure and glucose levels.

“I think it’s all about this idea of taking control of your own health, whether you’re doing it for yourself or for your kid,” says Spence. “If you can give that to your kid, that’s a lifelong gift.”

How the "sugar budget" it works

  • Set a budget: Your kid will need to learn to budget his sugar intake to a number of grams of sugar a day. How he spends those calories is up to him.
  • Get your kid a food journal: A food journal will help your kid understand what’s in the food he eats. He will probably only depend on it for a short time until he gets the hang of things.
  • Be patient and keep it fun: Your kid will probably require some time to adjust to his sugar budget, which may require some patience on your part. Remember that the goal is to help him develop good eating habits for the rest of his life.

Tips for cutting back on your kid’s sugar intake:

  • Steer clear of sugar-coated cereals and snacks.
  • Cut back on condiments like ketchup, which kids love but contain added sugar.
  • Replace fruit juice, dried fruit, and sugar-concentrated junk foods with real fruit, which contain fiber and nutrition.

NEXT: We Quit Sugar for 10 Days and This is What Happened

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