Tackling the Impact of High Sugar Intakes in the Early Years

It’s important that children develop patterns of healthy eating from an early age, both at home and in early years settings, to promote positive attitudes and enjoyment of good food into adulthood. Over the course of the day children should be offered 3 main meals and 2-3 small healthy snacks. This will ensure they’re meeting their energy and nutrient requirements to support optimal growth and development.

Besides nutrition, mealtimes are also a time for socialising and learning. Mealtimes can also support:

  • Physical development– e.g. hand eye coordination
  • Learning about food e.g. how it grows and where it comes from
  • Learninge.g. language, math, science
  • Social and emotional developmente.g. turn taking
  • Builds confidence and self- esteem

To ensure readiness for school, part of Ofsted’s Common Inspection Framework includes a judgement on Personal Development, Behaviour and Welfare. Inspectors consider the extent to which early years settings are successfully supporting pupils to gain “knowledge of how to keep themselves healthy” and “make informed choices about healthy eating, [and] fitness”.

Reviewing some of the foods most commonly eaten by under 5’s, the Children’s Food Trust’s State of the Nation Report highlighted the following preferences:

  • Whole milk
  • Breakfast Cereals
  • Squash
  • Fresh Vegetables
  • White bread

Commonly Eaten Food - Milk, Cereal, Fruit Squash, Broccoli


Other commonly eaten foods included:

  • Biscuits
  • Frozen potato products
  • Table Sauces

Commonly Eaten Food - Biscuits, chips, table sauces


Worryingly, the National Diet and Nutrition Survey revealed that children aged 4-10 years received 30% of their daily sugar intake from non alcoholic beverages such as sugar sweetened drinks and 29% from cereals and cereal products.

So what’s the impact of high sugar intakes in a child’s diet?

There’s a strong link between dental decay and the consumption of foods and drinks high in sugar. To reduce a child’s risk of decay, they need to reduce the amount of time that teeth are exposed to sugary foods and drinks.

New analysis by the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons, reports a 24% rise in the number of tooth extractions performed on 0-4 year olds in hospitals in England over the last decade. 90% of tooth decay is preventable through reducing sugar consumption, regular brushing, with fluoride toothpaste, and routine dental visits. Despite NHS dental treatment being free for under-18s, 42% of children didn’t see a dentist in 2015/16!

Little girl with lollipop backing away from a toothbrush

How much sugar can children have in their diet?

It’s recommended that from two years upwards, the average intake of free sugars should not exceed 5% of total dietary energy intake. Younger children should have even less than this (SACN, 2015). The recommended intake of free sugars is no more than:

  • 19g per day = five sugar cubes for four- to six- year olds
  • 24g per day = six sugar cubes for six- to 10 year olds
  • 30g per day = seven sugar cubes for 11 and over

(Public Health England, 2015)


Did you know?

A single 330ml can of soft drink can contain as much as 35g of sugar! This could instantly take a child over their maximum recommended daily intake of sugar.

Glass of cola beside piles of sugar cubes

Top Tips on h
ow can we take a combined approach to reducing sugar intake in the early years?




  • Be positive role models, eat the same foods as children and eat together as a family
  • Read Food Labels and choose lower sugar options (less than 5g of sugar per 100g)
  • Make a shopping list and plan some smart snack swaps. Check out our Healthy Snacks blog for ideas!

Fruity Owls

Early Years Practitioners

  • Plan meals and snacks in line with the Eat Better Start Better Guidelines
  • Be positive role models and promote healthy eating
  • Consider different ways to celebrate events. Some families will give out sweets to celebrate special events such as Easter, Chinese new Year or Diwali. You may wish to encourage them to give out stickers/pencils instead. Or make birthdays special by dressing up or playing party games.
  • Provide staff with nutrition knowledge- check out our range of online training (opens in new tab)



  • Discuss the EatWell guide and the importance of variety and meal routine
  • Role model positive behaviours
  • Be empathetic and offer ideas and practical solutions to making positive changes.
  • Signpost families to healthy snack ideas!


Food Industry

  • Meet Public Health England’s target to cut sugar by 20% by 2020, and by 5% this year. Businesses are being encouraged to meet the sugar reduction guidelines using three approaches:
      • Cutting sugar levels by 20% across their products
      • Reducing the number of calories in a single serving or reducing the portion size
      • Pushing consumers towards “no added” or lower sugar products
  • Have clear food labelling in place to ensure the population can make informed choices.

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