How much sugar should children have?

We’ve yet to meet a child without a sweet tooth, but are your kids consuming an unhealthy amount of sugar? Leading dietician Emer Delaney explains how much is too much, and shares simple swaps to help you reduce their intake…

Child with sweets on tongue

Most of us eat too much sugar and recent recommendations advise us to reduce the amount of ‘free sugars’ we eat. But what exactly does this mean? ‘Free sugars’ are any sugars that are added to food or drinks, or present naturally in unsweetened fruit juices, honey or syrups. It does not include natural sugar found in fruits, vegetables and milk. We should be eating a maximum of 5% of our daily calories from added sugars. However, the most recent UK survey showed that our kids are getting almost 12-16% of their daily calories from added sugar.

What happens when we eat too much sugar?

Eating too much sugar can often means we’re eating too many calories and if we don’t use them, our body will store them as fat. This can lead to weight gain and if this happens to our children, it’s very likely they will carry it into their adolescent and adult years, becoming overweight or obese.

With this in mind, how much free sugar should our kids have and is it really that bad? There is room for a little bit of sugar in children’s diets, but these foods and drinks should only be seen as occasional treats, never the norm. High sugar foods tend to have fewer vitamins and minerals, and they may start to replace nutritious foods kids need to grow and develop.


Maximum recommended sugar intake per day








From 11yrs



Foods to be aware of…

Biscuits, some breakfast cereals, pasta sauces, cakes, chocolates, sweets, fizzy drinks and fruit juice are all considered high in sugar. Almost a quarter of free sugar in our children’s diet comes from sugary drinks, and one single can of fizzy drink contains approximately nine teaspoons of sugar.

Some people believe that diet effects children’s behaviour, and that children become more hyperactive when they have sugar and are less likely to concentrate at school. This is a hotly debated topic and many parents say it dramatically affects their child’s behaviour. Scientifically speaking, there are no published studies to confirm this is the case. What we do know though is that sugar can lead to tooth decay, which is the biggest cause of hospital admissions among children. Health experts, including the British Dental, Dietetic and Medical Associations are calling for the government to take serious action and introduce a 20% Sugar Tax.

Top tips and simple swaps

  • Healthy snacksSwap high sugar breakfast cereals for 50:50 or granary toast, crumpets, bagels, plain yogurt with fruit or porridge with berries.  Make sure you read the label as some cereals position themselves as high fibre and healthy, yet contain high levels of sugar. At weekends, try scrambled or poached eggs on toast for a tasty alternative.
  • Instead of cakes, pastries, biscuits or sweets, try a plain scone, unsalted nuts, bread sticks, fruit and vegetable sticks, oat or rice cakes with a small amount of peanut butter, sliced banana, cheese or houmous.
  • Rather than fizzy drinks, try sparkling water with a small amount of unsweetened fruit juice.  Try ice cold milk, or you could blend some fruit, ice and milk and make a healthy, nutritious alternative.
  • Why not bake a fruit crumble or tart without adding much sugar, or try one of our sugar-free bakes.  Add a drizzle of cream and this will be a healthier alternative to jelly and ice-cream and most other puddings.  Plain yogurt with lots of berries, or fruit salad are other options you can choose.
  • Get your kids involved with preparing and cooking food. If they’ve helped out, they’re more likely to eat it.
  • Be a role model – children tend to copy behaviour so if they see you eating a healthy diet, they will too.

The advice isn’t to just cut down on sugar – demonising one ingredient isn’t always very helpful. We should encourage our children to eat healthier snacks and have more nutritious drinks, eat more fruit and vegetables and increase fibre by having wholemeal and wholegrain options. Being really active is also key, and encouraging different sports and activities is equally as important.


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