S’More Sugar, Please! How to Regulate Kids' Sugar Intake for Healthier Families

Young child eating vegetables

Jacqueline O’Gorman

 

You’re picking cereal for your child…Lucky Charms or Cheerios? Maybe you don’t mind either way. Maybe you get what your child wants (Lucky Charms. I mean, there are marshmallows) or maybe you pick the “healthier” option. But what if this decision makes an impact on your child’s eating habits and preference for sugar in the years to come? 

Research shows that sugar, a sweet substance obtained from plants, triggers the pleasure center in our brain. When the pleasure center is triggered by something we enjoy, dopamine, a compound that sends signals between nerve cells, is released.1,2,3 Dopamine causes a blissful feeling, reinforcing that whatever triggered the release—in this case, sugar—is a positive substance to be enjoyed. This association occurs whether we’re aware of it or not and can cause addictive behavior such as bingeing in order to activate the pleasure center.2,3 Since this reaction and behavior occurs in children and adults alike, sugar consumption should be more closely monitored across the board.

Child eating sugar on magazine coverThus, as a parent, it is important to regulate the sugar intake of children to create healthy habits and avoid sugar addiction from a young age. Sugar, natural or added, is prevalent in common foods and especially in children’s snacks. Sugar regulation may seem like a daunting task, but it is certainly worthwhile in reducing addictive behavior and improving overall health.

Before making any changes, it is important to understand the differences between regulation and elimination and their respective impacts. In terms of sugar, regulation includes reducing intake, not keeping high-sugar food items in the household, and only consuming sugary treats on occasion. Elimination on the other hand would be never eating sugary foods or deeming them off limits. Elimination has been shown to have an effect opposite of intent, and children actually end up consuming more of the food that is off limits.4 So, regulation is the key here. Let’s talk about some ways to do this! 

Tips & Tricks

There are many attainable methods to reduce the sugar intake of your children as well as the adults in your household. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Reduce sugary beverage intake. In addition to soda, this includes fruit juice, Gatorade and lemonade.
  • Reduce sugary breakfast foods. Breakfast can be loaded with sugar (think syrup), but it doesn’t have to be! Swap the pancakes for eggs or waffles for cereal with fewer grams of sugar.
  • Keep healthy snacks accessible. Cut up carrots, celery, apples and oranges and provide these as snack choices for your kids. Giving them a choice helps keep the snack desirable! 
  • Don’t keep snacks that are extremely high in sugar in the house. This includes ice cream, doughnuts, cookies and cakes. Instead, treat yourselves to these things every once in a while outside of the home. 
  • Change the narrative around dessert. Offer baked fruit or yogurt with cinnamon as a dessert for your family.
  • Relax on the granola bars. These things are often full of sugar! Instead try nuts, trail mix, hard boiled eggs or fresh fruit.
  • Finally, eat as a family. Your child learns eating habits from you, so family meals modeling healthy eating can have a tremendous impact. 

References

  1. Avena NM, Rada P & Hoebel BG (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 32(1), 20-39.
  2. Hoebel BG, Avena NM, Bocarsly ME & Rada P (2015). A behavioral and circuit model based on sugar addiction in rats. J Addict Med  3(1), 33-41.
  3. DiNicolantonio JJ, O’Keefe JH & Wilson WL (2017). Sugar addiction: is it real? A narrative review. Br J Sports Med 52 910-913. 
  4. Rollins BY, Loken E, Savage JS & Birch LL (2015). Effects of restriction on children’s intake differ by child temperament, food reinforcement, and parents chronic use of restriction. Appetite 73, 31-39.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacqeline O'Gorman, author of the article.Jacqueline O’Gorman is a recent graduate from the School of Kinesiology at the University of Michigan. Her academic interests include musculoskeletal function and the direct impacts of nutrition and exercise on cardiovascular health. As someone who loves sweets, the study of sugar regulation and childhood tendencies translated into adult habits is of particular interest to her. Fun fact: the s’more photo is of her, circa 2001.

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