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Column: Alternatives to filling Easter baskets with candy

Delicious chocolate easter eggs and sweets on wooden background

With Easter around the corner, baskets are filling up with candy. Sugar-packed treats are also part of the celebration for many adults.

Pop a Peep bunny or chick in your mouth and you've just enjoyed a teaspoon and a half of sugar. Sink your teeth into a Cadbury crème egg and you've had 5 teaspoons. Four jelly beans equal a teaspoon of sugar.

It's easy to see how Easter candies quickly load up our diets with added sugars.

Sugar can be natural or added. Natural sugars are found in whole fruits, vegetables and milk products. Added sugars are put into foods during manufacturing or at the table. Added sugars have many names that include corn syrup, date sugar, dextrose, fructose, glucose, honey, maltose, molasses, sucrose and fruit juice concentrates.

The American Heart Association and the federal government's Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting how much added sugar we consume. These calories crowd out other foods that provide important vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that we need to keep us healthy.

Eating too much sugar can increase your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease and obesity. Added sugars can also increase inflammation by releasing inflammatory messengers called cytokines.

Most Americans eat 22 teaspoons or a half cup of added sugars a day. That adds up to 156 pounds a year, or 15 10-pound bags. The American Heart Association recommends only 6 teaspoons of added sugars each day for women and children and 9 teaspoons for men.

Reading food labels can help you see how much sugar you're eating. However, it is sometimes difficult to decipher how much of that sugar is natural or added since the amount listed in the nutrition facts includes both. If you don't see any of the names for various forms of sugar, then the total sugar comes from natural sugars.

For candy, the total sugar is added sugar. It's more difficult for a product like yogurt that has natural sugars from milk and usually has some added sugar. The label also lists grams, so remember that four grams equals a teaspoon of sugar.

We like things sweet because we are born with a desire for sweet foods. Foods that are high in sugar and fat release "reward chemicals" in our brain and give us a strong desire to eat more.

This Easter season, start something new by rewarding your family with some alternatives to candy. Then rely more on the natural sugars in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products that also provide vitamins, minerals and many phytonutrients to keep your immune system strong and help improve or prevent many chronic diseases.

Easter basket alternatives

Create new traditions this Easter that include less added sugar:

• Bunny ears

• Balloons

• Bubbles

• Colored pencils or crayons

• Coloring books

• Stickers

• Sidewalk chalk

• Toothbrush

• Toys for the tub, beach or sandbox

• Squirt gun

• Stamps and ink pads

• Jump rope

• Hair bow/barrettes

• Fun socks or tights

• Gift card for phone apps or music

• Seed starter kits

• Baseball or tennis balls

• Yo-yo

• Bubble bath

• Nail polish

• Sunglasses

• Movie tickets or DVD

• Zoo admission

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