The coronavirus pandemic has upended much of the lives of children, and their diets too, research is showing.
One recent study found that after one year of the pandemic, one in three pediatric patients was above their expected weight, a 41% increase from before the pandemic.
Another study, published this month in the medical journal JAMA, found that two-thirds of U.S. children’s calorie intake comes from ultra-processed foods, defined as ready-to-eat foods that contain "little to no whole foods," like frozen pizza, chips and cookies.
The greater the intake of processed foods, the more sugar a child is likely consuming, which can lead to lifelong health complications, including obesity and Type 2 diabetes, experts say.
"The added sugars for most kids are going to show up in the packaged, processed foods," said Maya Feller, a New York-based registered dietitian and nutritionist. "For the most part, you don't have tablespoons of sugar dumped into their homemade food, so it’s actually in whatever product they’re consuming."
Kelly LeVeque, a Los Angeles-based holistic nutritionist who works with stars like Jennifer Garner, has focused on blood sugar control with her adult clients for over a decade.
When LeVeque gave birth to her oldest son nearly three years ago, she said she was shocked to see how hard it is to control sugar intake in even young kids.
"I know firsthand that added sugars and too much even natural sugar in something like orange juice wreak havoc on us internally, on our metabolic goals, so when I became a mom, it was mind-blowing," she said. "Even the [portable food] pouches available to children are all sugar."
LeVeque recently launched a "Fab 4 Under 4" guide for parents that adapts the "Fab 4" principles she created to help adults support blood sugar balance in kids.
"We think that kids are not vulnerable to the effects of sugar, but in fact they’re more vulnerable," she said, noting that blood sugar spikes caused by sugar can affect everything from a child's mood to their ability to learn. "These are formative years for children and, in my opinion, they’re drugged with sugar, and it’s not their fault when we look at the increased access to processed foods in their pantry,"
Here are five tips from LeVeque and Feller to help parents reduce the amount of sugar in their children's diets.
1. Balance sugar with protein, fat or fiber.
Parents can help reduce the impact of sugar kids consume by balancing it with other macronutrients, according to LeVeque.
"If you’re going to have sugar, even natural sugar in the form of fruit, you absolutely have to balance that with protein, fat or fiber," she said. "That blood sugar response needs to be blended with other foods."
A breakfast of pancakes and strawberries, for example, would cause a double spike in blood sugar, where serving pancakes with a protein like peanut butter or turkey sausage would help counter the blood sugar spike brought on by the pancakes.
2. Know what sugar your child is consuming at home .
Both Feller and LeVeque acknowledge it's inevitable that children will consume sugar at celebrations like birthday parties or at friends' houses, and that's okay.
What parents can do, however, is make sure they keep the foods their kids eat daily at home low in sugar.
"Make sure that with every food in your house, you know where the sugar is," said LeVeque. "My kids are going to have sugar but they’re not going to have sugar in their ketchup or their marinara or granola bars," "We’re going to pull it out of the everyday things and be very strategic."
3. Read food labels.
There are more than 70 ways that sugar can be listed on a food label, so parents need to not only read food labels, but read them carefully.
Look out for words that end in "ose" (like glucose, dextrose, sucrose), as well as words like juice concentrate, syrup, honey, maple, coconut sugar and agave, according to LeVeque.
"Sugar is sugar. It doesn’t matter what type it is," she said. "I don't care if it's natural, organic, vegan, paleo, keto, look for the sugar."
Feller echoes that parents should also be wary of food labels that feature healthy buzz words to advertise a product that nonetheless contains sugar.
"It’s challenging for parents in the current food landscape to figure out what constitutes a healthy pattern of eating," she said. "When a parent goes to a grocery store and they see 100% carrot juice, sure it is a better choice than a sugar-sweetened beverage, but it would also be great to offer your child a carrot."
4. Talk to your child about how foods make them feel.
LeVeque said she talks to her sons about what the foods they eat do for their bodies, like building muscle.
"I want my kids to have the foundation of knowing how healthy eating makes them feel and knowing the expectation of their family, that we eat to nourish our bodies," she said. "So when they’re crying and having a meltdown after a sugar crash, it’s having the conversation, ‘I see that you’re upset now … I bet if you had a little bit of protein and a lot of water, you’d feel a lot better.’"
5. Encourage your child to eat what you eat.
"You don't need kid foods," said LeVeque, adding that the kids' foods nearly always contain more sugar. "People think, 'Oh, I need to get my kids the kids' yogurt,' but that's just something you're being told, that kids need kid food and kids need kids' meals."
When LeVeque's sons begin eating solid foods, she serves them a portion of her own meal when they are out to eat, for example.
"I'll order chicken and a side of veggies or a salad and order extra protein and put a little chicken on his plate with some avocado," she said. "And when kids get to the age that they need another meal, order a real meal, take half of it home and you have lunch the next day. Not only did your kid eat healthier, but you have a healthier lunch for the next day."
6. Allow your child to cook with you.
"Kids love to cook and they’re super capable," said Feller. "Sometimes it takes time to prepare food with them, but we have to change our mindset and be okay with the idea that there will be times where we’re going to spend time preparing something."
"You have to get your kids involved," echoed LeVeque. "And get your kids involved in making the vegetables and the protein and the dip. They don't care what they're making with you. You believe that they're going to be disappointed that they're not making cookies, but they are so excited to make a vinaigrette with you, a kale salad with you, to barbecue with you."
When LeVeque does bake with her son, she uses tricks like swapping bananas for sugar in their favorite blueberry muffin recipe.
"Swapping in bananas for even half of the sugar in the recipe helps," she said. "Because the sugar in banana is wrapped up in fiber, there won't be as much of a high blood sugar spike and crash."
Try these low-sugar recipes from LeVeque and Feller
Kelly’s Leveque's blueberry muffins
1/4 cup coconut oil
1/3 cup unsweetened vanilla nut milk
2 bananas (smush them in the peel before placing in a bowl so you don’t have to fork them as long)
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups almond flour
1 scoop @bewellbykelly vanilla protein powder (or 1/4 cup coconut flour)
2/3 cup tapioca or arrowroot flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups blueberries
Mix wet and dry ingredients, and place in a greased muffin tin (can grease with coconut oil).
Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.
"I slather the muffins with almond butter and ghee, yum!" said Leveque.
Maya Feller's mint chocolate chip green smoothie
1 cup plain full fat Greek yogurt
1/4 cup baby spinach leaves
1 teaspoon ground flax seed
1/2 cup frozen banana
1/2 teaspoon mint extract (alcohol free) or 1 drop BetterStevia® Peppermint Cookie Liquid
cacao nibs for garnish
Place all ingredients in a blender and blend for 90 seconds until smooth.
Pour into a glass, garnish with cacao nibs and enjoy.