In this blog we go over sugar and spice and everything nice in your infant/toddler’s diet. Can they have it? When can they have it? How much is too much?
There is a lot of confusion online, especially on social media about sugar and spices. “Feed your baby what you eat, but no salt.” “Don’t give your child sugar or they will get obese.” “Don’t give your baby spices from a young age, they can’t handle it.” Here, I break it down with some common sense advice.
Why is there a conversation around salt in our children’s food? Three of the biggest things you have probably heard are:
- Harm their developing kidneys
- Predispose them to high blood pressure
- Set them up to prefer salty foods later in life
Can it harm the kidneys?
There is no peer reviewed literature on this; I don’t agree. Remember in the first year of life, BM and/or formula is what your child is getting and food introduction is supplemental and by one year, you will see more of that. By 6 months, their kidneys can handle the amount of sodium we sprinkle in foods. My worry would be copious amounts of processed foods. There is NO data supporting sodium intake to adverse outcomes in infants. Now, of course, if you fed your child salty foods every single meal then that wouldn’t be great—but that’s the case of ANY food—everything in moderation.
Will they be predisposed to high blood pressure?
It is true that salt in adulthood can lead to cardiovascular disease, but we really do not have data to support this in children, especially when we are giving it in the amounts we give it. I don’t want to dismiss the fact that high sodium foods (preference for high-sodium foods) can lead to hypertension, but we are talking about incorporating the foods we eat to our babies for meals here and there. When you are HOME COOKING A MEAL, you are in control of that salt and if you generally are eating a well-balanced diet with seasoning, this is okay.
Remember to balance
Are salty foods the majority of the child’s diet? Are we incorporating other foods? Are we incorporating home-made foods? Are they mainly processed?
Salt intake in infancy can lead to salt preference later in life
Think about this from a common sense perspective – our goal with feeding our kids is to encourage a wide variety of textures and flavors. So yes, if you feed your child salty food every meal or sweet foods every meal, they will have a preference. However, if you vary up the foods and set healthy boundaries with eating, then you are encouraging your child to try various things.
The take home message about salt
Have you tried bland vegetables?? They taste awful. Why would our kids want that? It’s okay to season them. You don’t have to pour salt all over it, but it can really help palatability. Think of it from a picky eating viewpoint – some of it is truly because, hey would you really want to eat unseasoned mushy broccoli? I know I wouldn’t!
When you think of most cultures, they are not feeding their child separate meals—they are feeding their child what they eat in a texture they can handle (BLW promotes this, and you do not need to take out the salt if you are cooking). Be mindful not to overdo it, but balance it out. Don’t stress yourself out over calculating salt requirements. The stress is not needed!
For infants under one, avoid canned and processed foods, check the labels for sodium and of course we have a preference for home cooked meals when you are able to cook them. If your child is over one, canned foods are okay, but I still prefer home cooked with balancing store bought packaged foods.
For cheeses—try to give your infant ricotta, swiss, mozzarella and cottage as they have lower sodium.
I don’t know why are avoiding spices! Once you start solids, my opinion is to start slow—introduce single ingredients. Once you’ve done that, you can combine, and as long as your child is 6 months+ and has tried various “blandish foods to see if their gut can tolerate” you can go to seasonings. What seasonings am I talking about? Turmeric, black pepper, ginger, cumin, cilantro, garlic, mint, paprika, etc. Countries all around the world feed their child what they eat and this means the spices that come with it. Spices make food fun AND they have a lot of anti-inflammatory properties! Your child CAN have these!
What is the worry?
We want to make sure we watch for any GI upset. As their gut is maturing, we want to make sure they can handle it but this is true of ANY food. So take it slow but don’t be shy. Start with a little bit, see how they do. Start building. I personally am a spice fan, so once Ryaan turned 6 months we spiced up that food.
What about spicy foods?
Well this is a no-brainer. Spicy food can really make them upset. So start slow and build it. Start with maybe mild heat, see how they do and then build up. I wouldn’t do a five alarm chili! But it’s okay to give your infant and toddler spices! Ryaan eats my husband’s level of spice level of food (I eat more spicy) so I make sure to prepare everything at that level. Choose a level that is mild first.
Don’t over season!
You do not want to over season everything. One, this can upset their tummies and two, we do want to teach our children that food comes in various flavors (flavorful, more bland, and different textures). Just like we vary textures, we should vary degree of flavors. So really the message is to feed your baby spices after 6 months, diversify the spices, avoid five alarm chilies, and enjoy the diversity.
Sugar is an important one, and for this post I’m focusing more on added sugars. Eating and drinking too much added sugar puts kids at risk for obesity, tooth decay, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease, among other health problems. Added sugars (a simple carbohydrate) quickly turns into glucose in your bloodstream. Your blood sugar levels spike.
So why are fruits okay??
Simple carbs are also found in fruits, veggies, and dairy products. But these have fiber and protein that slow the process. Syrup, soda, candy, and table sugar don’t. My concern here is added sugar and sugary drinks, not sugars that are naturally occurring in foods like fruits.
How much is too much?
The problem is there is no defined value that is considered too much, but the threshold of causing concerns in a child can be different. The issue is more that we need to create some maximum standards. Added sugar is becoming easier to spot on nutrition labels. Many foods now list added sugar separately. You also can find added sugar by reading the ingredients. It comes in many forms, including brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey dextrose, fruit juice concentrates, invert sugar, malt sugar, molasses, raw sugar and turbinado.
For a child under two
Do not give added sugars. But what if I give my child a piece of my cake or a dessert?? Personally, I think this is okay if it is truly the exception and not a rule. But I find similar to screen time, this can become more of a rule and not an exception so you want to be mindful of that. I have given Ryaan tastes of Indian desserts without hesitation because they were exceptions and special occasions.
For a child over two
- Aim for less than 25 grams (about 6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day for children 2 years of age and older. Remember something, this is a goal. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t calculate…it’s meant to be more of means for you to be conscious of it.
- Serve water and milk instead of soda, sports drinks, sweet tea, sweetened coffee and fruit drinks. Milk contains natural sugar (lactose). It also provides calcium, protein, vitamin D and other nutrients that children need. Milk is okay.
- Satisfy your child’s sweet tooth with whole fruit (fruit contains fiber).
- The AAP recommends no more than 4 ounces of 100% fruit juice a day for children ages 1 through 3 years; 4 to 6 ounces for children ages 4 through 6; and 8 ounces for children ages 7 through 14. Do not give fruit juice to infants under 1 year old. I personally don’t think fruit juice is necessary when you’re giving your child fruit. Give them the real deal – no need to liquify it!
- Sometimes doctors may recommend meds with sugar – prune juice, for example. This has sugar in it but it’s naturally occurring and no added sugar.
- A child’s food preferences Is largely developed in the first two years of life. Most are learned, but some are innate.
- Everything in moderation. The goal here is to be mindful in how we shop and what we eat ourselves. We want to live a long and healthy life and we want that for our kids, too.
- Don’t beat yourself up. We do our best we can as parents—sometimes that means breaking these “rules” a bit, but remember this is the exception and not the rule.
- Advertisements, especially in communities of color, are not advertising things like broccoli or veggies. The fast food industry spends nearly 5 million dollars a day marketing products high in sugar, fat and salt. Is this a bad thing occasionally? No, it’s food. But every day? Not ideal.