Sugar is abundant in our world. What's also abundant is the amount of fear-mongering messaging about sugar and the effects it has on our kids’ (and our) bodies. Understandably, we’re totally freaking out! So what does the evidence actually say and are there some helpful, sane strategies for handling sugar that could mean less stress for both you and your little ones?
First off, I want to clarify that the purpose of this article is not to shame anyone. As a parent, you’re most certainly doing the best you can with what you know and what you have. Ultimately, it’s totally up to you the way you choose to parent them but what I'd love to do is cut through the anxiety-inducing messaging and present you with the facts. Hopefully, that will mean that you can make informed decisions about sugar and your kids with more confidence and less fear.
The Drawbacks of Making Sugar Off-Limits
It can be so very tempting to just cut sugar out of their lives completely where we can. Problem solved right? However, making sugary foods off-limits doesn’t make them any less appealing to kids, in fact, it can have the opposite effect. We know that, like us, children want what they are not allowed. When we restrict them, we put sugary foods on a pedestal. This then makes those foods considerably more difficult for kids to relate to and eat in a balanced way when they do have access to them (1,7). Yes, sugar doesn't help our bodies grow so it does warrant some extra thought and attention, but, we don’t need to panic about it and there is seldom cause to cut it out completely. I hear you saying, “Ok, BUT my kid + sugar = crazy, bonkers, up the wall and then the crash!"
The Truth about the Sugar High
We all know the notorious sugar-high cycle - hyper one minute, total meltdown the next. However, multiple research studies have shown that the link between sugar and hyperactivity isn’t easily proven (8). Wait, what? One word for you: context. Think of the situations where your child has access to and is eating sugary foods. Birthday parties? Sleepovers? School fairs? Yes, there is usually sugar involved but the hype and excitement that surrounds those events are enough to send them a little loopy. All the over-stimulation and exhaustion that results from having a wonderful time? That crash is bound to happen. So perhaps, there’s more to the sugar-high than we thought but surely letting kids eat sweet things will only make them crave more?
Eating Sugar = Wanting More Sugar Right?
There is a pretty pervasive message out there that if we let our kids eat sugar we’re basically programming our kids to prefer sweet tastes and never go near a vegetable again. Firstly, it’s 100% normal for children to prefer sweet tastes, this is because kids need sugar. Their growing brains need glucose. Fun fact: brains actually use up to 20 times more glucose than nonbrain tissue does! Secondly, restriction doesn’t solve this one either, in fact, it usually backfires. One study used beverages of varying sweetness to assess how preferences for sweet tastes in children differed depending on levels of parental restriction. The results revealed that of those children who had highly restrictive parents 55% preferred the sweetest beverage. Whereas, of those children whose parents were less restrictive, only 33% preferred the sweetest tasting beverage (3). However, as with everything in the area of nutrition and health, there is nuance.
Where it Can Get Sticky
Problems can arise when sugary foods, or any foods really, are used to reward kids for good behaviour or performance. This type of parental "control" has been shown to diminish children’s innate ability to self-regulate around food and is associated with higher consumption of sugary foods (4, 5, 6). This is not to say that you can’t celebrate an achievement with a special meal or going out for an ice-cream but where possible try to avoid repeatedly presenting snacks or treats as rewards. Some alternative ideas for rewards: a later bedtime; playing a game they love together; an extra bedtime story; inviting a friend for a sleepover; a sticker chart or just some good ol’fashioned praise.
Competent not Perfect Eaters
The fact is, there is a LOT of sugar out in the world. We want our kids to be able to navigate that world and to eat sugar in a balanced way, without us hanging over them and micromanaging. In just the same way as us adults, the way our kids relate to food can more impactful on their health and wellbeing in the long term than every bite they put into their mouths. It’s a wonderful thing for children to learn to trust their bodies and that eating for pleasure, fun and celebration is a really important and healthy part of normal life. If we can raise confident, competent eaters who know how to listen to their bodies and self-regulate in a world where food is over-abundant, what a priceless gift that is to our kids! Let’s dig into a few strategies you could use to help with that.
Strategies for Sugar You Could Try:
When it comes to sugar and treats, what we don’t want to do is to deceive our kids. That doesn’t cultivate trust in us or with food. However, the way you manage sugar in your household depends on your kids’ age and what works for your family.
Toddlers (1-2 years) - if a child doesn’t know what they’re missing out on they aren’t missing out. This is not to condone being deceptive when it comes to sugar but until they’re about two you might find that they truly aren’t too bothered about sweets because they haven’t had much exposure to them. An exception might be if they have older siblings, then they’ll likely want what they have. Once their awareness and interest in what other children are eating does peak, then it’s fair to let them join in on celebration occasion, birthdays or at school etc.
2-5 years - You could try a structure on normal days of 1 or 2 "fun foods" a day (chips, ice-cream, chocolate, foods that don’t necessarily help us grow but are important in life).
5 years and up - If you have an older child why not ask them what they think is reasonable when it comes to fun foods? For example, you could still set the limits of how much is available, but you could let them decide when they want to have them - after dinner, after school, etc. Giving older children some agency, starting with letting them choose when and how rather than how much, is a great way to promote body trust. That way we’re teaching them that fun foods are fine to have but that we eat them in smaller amounts than we do more nutritious foods.
For all kids - Keep treat foods out of sight, not necessarily hidden away but just not in their everyday line of sight. Try a shelf high enough in the pantry that they can't see up to. Don’t be afraid to just chill out about birthday parties or celebrations though, you can get back to your normal rhythm once they’re over.
If you are struggling with family feeding dynamics, finding mealtimes too chaotic or worried about how much sugar your child is eating, get in touch and see how you can take the stress out of feeding your family and find food peace.
1. Duyff, R. L., Birch, L. L., Byrd-Bredbenner, C., Johnson, S. L., Mattes, R. D., Murphy, M. M., . . . Wansink, B. (2015, 01). Candy Consumption Patterns, Effects on Health, and Behavioral Strategies to Promote Moderation: Summary Report of a Roundtable Discussion. Advances in Nutrition, 6(1). doi:10.3945/an.114.007302
2. Liem, D., & Degraaf, C. (2004, 12). Sweet and sour preferences in young children and adults: Role of repeated exposure. Physiology & Behavior, 83(3), 421-429. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2004.08.028
3. Liem, D. G., Mars, M., & Graaf, C. D. (2004, 12). Sweet preferences and sugar consumption of 4- and 5-year-old children: Role of parents. Appetite, 43(3), 235-245. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2004.05.005
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7. Ventura, A., & Worobey, J. (2013, 05). Early Influences on the Development of Food Preferences. Current Biology, 23(9). doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.02.037
8. Wolraich, M. L. (1995, 11). The Effect of Sugar on Behavior or Cognition in Children. Jama, 274(20), 1617. doi:10.1001/jama.1995.03530200053037