How much sugar is too much for a toddler?
April 23, 2007 9:03 AM   Subscribe

How much sugar is too much for a toddler?

I am sometimes caretaker/future stepmom to my boyfriend's 3 year old twins. He has partial custody.
I've been in their life for 2 years in charge of the house nutrition basically.
I avoid almost all corn syrup, most added sugar and as little processed food as we can muster (soups, sides, etc).
Drinks are juice and water, snacks are fruit and organic "healthy" stuff. I think it's important in development and so does my boyfriend.
The boys' mom seems to feel differently than us and he tries to say little about it despite not being very happy with it. They have have things like doritos, soda, fake fruit snacks, chocolate milk for milk and lucky charms for breakfast since they were 1. These arent occasional. It's every day.
When ever we pick them up they have candy and gum and the like.
The thing is how much is too much?
I know I am a bit of a nazi about nutrition and when they ask for candy I tell them in our house we have candy for halloween and easter. But they LOVE the snacks we give them - berries, fruit leather, etc.

Is there a reference about how much sugar is too much?? A guideline? AMA or pediatrics? Based on the food they get a day (not including candy, soda) it seems they AT LEAST 120 g added sugars from corn syrup and sugar.

There is little to no drama ever between us and thats how I want to keep it but I think this is a worthy subject to bring up.
I am worried about their health and their behavior (at their house-it's not so good and I am sure diet can contribute).
posted by beccaj to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Sounds like she is just feeding them what she eats, and it's probably going to be difficult to convince her to change her own eating habits.

If you are friendly with her you could try it, but otherwise it sounds like a gigantic uphill battle. Sorry not offer much practical advice. has some info on dietary guidelines for kids.
posted by voidcontext at 9:11 AM on April 23, 2007

I admire your desire to give these kids a healthy diet, but what are you trying to accomplish, practically?

It's no secret that stuff like Doritos, (non-diet) soda, and chocolate milk are bad for you. Parents, IMO, buy that crap for their kids because it's cheap and it shuts them up. My point is that I think any effort on your part (even indirectly through your boyfriend) to "educate" their mother about this issue will be met with irrational hostility- you're not their real mother, she knows what's best for them, who the hell do you think you are, blah blah blah. Issues of family and control are just going to override any semblance of common sense.

My advice is to lead quietly by example. Keep up your good habits, and maybe start giving them Goodie Bags with healthy snacks to take back to her place when they leave you.
posted by mkultra at 9:17 AM on April 23, 2007

It sounds to be me like you are trying to pick a fight. The mother knows that Doritos aren't good nutrition, so your telling her isn't going to open her eyes, or whatever fantasy you have.

The best you can do is to educate the kids themselves. By that I do not mean to program stock phrases into them that they will emit when Mom tries to feed them ("Mommy Beccaj says that chocolate milk is a crutch by the dairy industry to lure in children and also contains 9 toxins shown to increase the risk of cancer.") I mean to show them what is good for them and hope they make good choices when they are old enough to do so.

If "partial custody" is at least half the time, I wouldn't fear for them medically in the least.
posted by DU at 9:19 AM on April 23, 2007

Sounds like she is just feeding them what she eats, and it's probably going to be difficult to convince her to change her own eating habits.

I wouldn't assume that, but remember, it is probably not your place to say anything about this to their mother at this point. If things are generally amicable, I suggest you ask the boys' father to bring it up with the mom.

I don't know of any hard and fast guidelines for sugar intake, but a common sense approach will keep everyone from going insane. Limiting sugary sweets to one or two nights a week after dinner is a good start. I would cut juice right out as it's not a good way to get micronutrients to these kids (darn-near-empty calories); give them fruit instead of juice. Also, keep in mind that 3-year-olds can be really picky, and sometimes it's OK to give in and let them have some chips, etc., esp. if they're active kids. You can find whole grain chips and similar crunchy carb-y snacks these days.

Being a step-mom is hard work, but it's worth the trip in my experience (step-dad). The bottom line on dietary changes is, you do have to get the mom's buy-in, but that might not be as hard as you think. Just please, for the sake of your family, let the boys' dad negotiate this! Good luck!
posted by Mister_A at 9:26 AM on April 23, 2007

It may make you feel better to know that, in general, kids bodies regulate their blood sugar better than adult bodies. There have been studies showing that 500 calories, eaten by a 50 yr old vs a 25 yr old, are processed differently. The 25 yr old is able to produce enough insulin, uses up the calories over the next few hours, and doesn't gain weight. The 50 yr old has a blood sugar spike, the calories go straight to the hips, and then is hungry again in a few hours.

So, when you look at the amount of junk the kids are eating, remember that they are better able to handle it than you. What would turn you into a sugar-fueled maniac is probably not affecting them.

I think your best bet will be to teach them good habits and overlook the bad stuff they're getting at the other house. When they go off to college and have to fix their own meals, you want them to have learned at least some healthy recipies. Can you teach them how to fix their own healthy snacks and meals? If you make it fun they might choose to do it on their own. And at least when they are older they will know how to make something that is not processed junk.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:27 AM on April 23, 2007

Thanks for the responses so far- and trust me...
I am not trying to pick a fight. I'm the one that wants to invite them for cook outs etc. I think seeing everyone together and really getting along would be really good for the boys.
The mom was a casual friend that had a one night stand. There is no jealousy, etc.
But I love these kids and the will be in our lives, well, for the rest of our lives.
I really am just worried about their health and even future in school.
We will have 20 years dealing with all kinds of real issues - I don't want to make waves.
posted by beccaj at 9:42 AM on April 23, 2007

Children are starting to get Type-II diabetes these days, but only if they're very overweight (from what I understand). If the kids start getting fat, you might want to have a talk, but if not I wouldn't worry. Kids don't have to worry about cholesterol and heart disease. They don't need to worry about gaining weight (after all, they're going to be growing)

The only thing to worry about (In my view) is whether or not they pick up healthy habits as kids. I ate junk food as a kid and I still enjoy it today. Meanwhile my co-worker is a health nut who can't stand eating very much, because she didn't as a child.

That's my view anyway, I'm not a doctor or anything.
posted by delmoi at 9:54 AM on April 23, 2007

Oh and side note-
I was planning NONE of this to come from my mouth.
Just trying to help my boyfriend have a concrete idea of what is too much.
He has come to her with this in the past.
The thing is I think that the things she thinks are heathy - those phoney fruit snacks, Yogos, chocolate milk are then topped off with the treats- gum, candy and chips.
The kids go to her home begging for snacks when they leave our house (even tho they eat great with us and have plenty of snacks) and she thinks they are hungry when I really think they are just craving sugar.
She has sent us her snacks in the bag - as a hint- I assume. And they really were just candy.
She seems like a good Mom and I do think she'd really want to do right by the kids.
posted by beccaj at 10:01 AM on April 23, 2007

If you could eventually wrangle custody for the days they are in school, you could influence their ability to learn in school. You could also ask the kids if they want to take any snacks home with them.

FWIW, some doctors say chocolate milk is actually better than juice that hasn't been watered down. But I am right with you on the health & nutrition concerns otherwise.
posted by acoutu at 10:02 AM on April 23, 2007

if you are friends, or at least amicable co-parents, why don't you both go to see a nutritionist together, or go to the kids' next doctor's appointment together? or have him and the mother go together?

there may be no jealousy, but she may still feel that her authority is being challenged. hearing it from a third-party expert may help.

also, just the fact that the kids are getting healthy food at your house will offset a lot of the crap they get at home. take the opportunity to educate the kids about healthy food choices, and they may start to ask their mom for apples instead of cookies.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:18 AM on April 23, 2007

Your body feels and works a lot better without sugar/corn syrup/hydrogenated fats, etc. I personally eat none, but I think you can get by in moderation. This website has a list of the negative effects of sugar. I don't know if everything is true but it puts things into perspective.
posted by koshka at 10:33 AM on April 23, 2007

To answer your original question, THE national guideline is the USDA food pyramid, at Most of the parts of the pyramid are "good stuff" - grains, vegetables, protein, etc. There are also a certain number of what they call "discretionary calories."

If you look here:
it tells you more about discretionary calories.

The mypyramid plan for a moderately active 3 yr old boy allows for 170 discretionary calories a day. Since a gram of sugar is 3.4 calories, they are clearly getting too much sugar (about 400 calories, if they take in 120g extra a day).

Good luck managing the situation! You sound like a great ally for these kids' health. Remember that one of the big reasons childhood nutrition is important is that it sets the stage for later food choices, when our metabolism slows down and more problems (like obesity) crop up. Hang in there and keep teaching them about good choices so they have options later in life.
posted by selfmedicating at 10:53 AM on April 23, 2007

How much sugar is too much? Probably anything more than 1 or 2 servings per day, following the serving size on the package.

If you're trying to convince her to alter her ways, expect an uphill battle. Food and eating can be very close to the bone such that even commenting on someone's diet is akin to a personal attack. I know that this is not what you asked, but I see it as the real battle. That said, put the power of manipulation into your hands. If you're trying to convince her, you need to understand how she argues. The typical styles are from logic, ethics, and emotion (logos, ethos, pathos). If you present a solid, logical argument to an emotional arguer, you've lost the moment you open your mouth.

I'm also in the camp of working by subversion. First and foremost, it's your house, your rules. Then you can get the kids involved in cooking and the process of meal planning. There are so many wins on so many fronts there in addition to nutrition. Help build a foundation that they will have for their entire lives.
posted by plinth at 12:43 PM on April 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Subversion? Battle? Wrangling custody? beccaj, I implore you, ignore this line of advice. No battles. No subversion. No trying to steal this woman's kids. Work with her. It will take time, effort, and the spirit of conciliation and compromise.

I also encourage you to take a good look at yourself—are you giving the mom a fair shake? Given the history you three share, it would not be surprising if you were less charitable toward her than you might otherwise be. If you turn this into a battle, you will all lose.
posted by Mister_A at 1:02 PM on April 23, 2007

I 2nd (or nth) the suggestion to lead by example. Take them grocery shopping, involve them in the choosing of fruits & veggies, let them help cook (I realize at 3 that this may seem like far more trouble than it's worth).

My parents were pretty extreme health nuts - I was 8 before I ever ate white bread, and I found it revoltingly sweet and cottony. But I didn't appreciate all the fruits and vegetables. My cousins had diets that were lacking because my aunts were both on public assistance, and I was always shocked when they would come over and devour our fruit. It was like candy to them. Just by providing the opportunity for them to eat healthful food, you will be making an impression.
posted by peep at 1:29 PM on April 23, 2007

If your description of these kids' daily intake is accurate then they are fucked. Not nutritionally, per se, since their bodies can handle all the crap they're taking in from a pure physiologic perspective. Moreso that they are getting a crash course in convenience eating and are developing a taste for crap and a simultaneous distaste for healthy foods. You can't put a good face on it. It's all bullshit. Mom is lazy, or ignorant. Junk food, like TV, is something kids get a certain amount of, and in small amounts is reasonable and a somewhat realistic/necessary part of life. But as a daily habit its long-term effect is unbelievably destructive.

Set good examples and leave it at that.

And also, gum in three year-old's mouth is a huge choking hazard.
posted by docpops at 1:35 PM on April 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Judging from my own intake of Fruity Pebbles when I was a kid, they can handle amounts of sugar that would put you into a diabetic coma.

I hope you don't actually tell them that "when they ask for candy I tell them in our house we have candy for halloween and easter." Yeah, sugar is bad, but that just seems kind of.... harsh to tell a kid and expect them to understand. They seem to be overindulged at their mothers, but I'm not sure that taking the 100% opposite position is wise either. Moderation is key.
posted by GregW at 1:44 PM on April 23, 2007

120 g of sugar is 480 calories. That's about half the amount of calories a toddler needs. So yeah, too much sugar (and then you are not even counting the empty calories in the fried snacks they eat...). But you knew that already.
I think many parents these days think the sugary cereal and the chocolate milk are health foods, and then they get treats on top of that. It is quite sad.
posted by davar at 2:32 PM on April 23, 2007

Those discretionary calories include fat and other things, don't they? 50 tsps of sugar = 170 calories and I'm sure no nutritionist would support that much sugar.

Also, when we give our son chocolate milk (rarely), we put in 1/5 chocolate milk and 4/5 regular milk. He thinks he's getting a treat because he so rarely has sugar that even that amount tastes amazing to him.
posted by acoutu at 8:26 AM on April 24, 2007

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