This post was updated in May 2019.
Sweets are a burning topic for parents.
Partly because they seem to be ever-present in our world. At school, church, the bank and even at your favorite healthcare provider’s office.
As one mom said to me, “Everywhere we go there is some kind of food available for my child to eat, and often it’s a sweet treat.”
I have no doubt that your child will be tempted by their lure. This shouldn’t baffle you entirely because there are reasons for this. From an early flavor preference to the abundant exposure to sweets, many kids will favor the flavor.
In fact, if they exist in your child’s diet, then you should understand how they gain ground, as well as, how they impact your child’s health.
All this understanding will help you manage sweets when they present themselves in your child’s diet.
9 Things to Know about Sweets and Kids
I’ve sorted out the nine most important things you need to know, so you can stay balanced in your approach and strategies around treats. If you really want to raise a healthy eater, you’ll need to have a handle on this aspect of your child’s eating.
Children are naturally inclined to sweet flavors
Children are born with taste buds that are used to sugary flavor (amniotic fluid is sweet). If your baby was breastfed, that taste was reinforced through breast milk.
This natural exposure in your womb and your baby’s first feeding explains how sweet preference begins.
Early introduction (before age 2) increases preference
As I mentioned, research has shown that sweet tastes are familiar at birth. Studies have also shown that babies experience relaxation and calmness after tasting something sweet.
Eating sweets begets eating more
The more sweets kids eat, the stronger the liking of them, and perhaps, the craving for them.
The pleasure response in the brain is turned on by highly palatable foods, such as those containing sugar, fat, and salt. In other words, these food components trigger feel-good brain chemicals including dopamine.
Once children experience pleasure (associated with increased dopamine transmission in the brain’s reward pathway) from eating certain foods, they may feel an urge to eat them again.
Remember, building healthy eating habits over time means you’ll have to be conscious of the patterns that are being established around eating.
Treats may contain artificial food colors
The FDA regulates and guarantees the purity and safety of artificial food colorings. As it stands in the United States today, food colors and dyes are considered safe for human consumption.
However, some children experience behavioral changes, such as hyperactivity, when they consume foods with artificial food colors. If your child lives with ADHD, they may experience worsening behavior when eating foods with food dyes..
Some kids experience behavior changes after eating sugary food
A child who demonstrates a change in behavior when he or she eats sweets is not out of the question, although it is rare that sugar alone changes behavior.
What does happen, though, is that your child may get jacked up on sugary foods (remember, dopamine kicks in and your child feels great), then quickly crashes as his blood sugar plummets from the high of concentrated sweets.
This quick decline in blood sugar can elicit behavioral changes such as tantrums, acting out, whining, or other negative behavior. This explains why some kids appear to be more sensitive to sugar than others.
Candy contains empty calories
Candy can certainly ramp up the calorie contribution to your child’s diet, but may offer few nutrients. In other words, there is little nutrition or nutrients per calorie consumed, also known as poor nutrient density.
The younger your child is, the more important it is to make sure that every bite counts for nutrition.
Too much sugar may contribute to weight problems in children
I don’t need to drone on and on about this one, but the overconsumption of sweets is tied to the development of weight challenges in children.
The sugar recommendations are for children to eat no more than 3 to 8 teaspoons of sugar each day, depending on age (younger children eat the lower end of recommendations per the American Heart Association).
However, kids as young as 1 years old are consuming three to four times this amount.
It gets worse as kids get older: 21 teaspoons per day for 4 to 8 year olds and 34 teaspoons per day for teens.
Some foods don’t seem sweet, but they are!
Fruited yogurt, spaghetti sauce, cereal, granola bars. The list of foods that have added sugar may shock you.
While these aren’t always obvious, hidden sources of sugar can add up in your child’s diet.
Sweets may be sneaked
In my experience, when kids feel too controlled by their parents around sweets, they may sneak them, or overeat them outside of the home.
This certainly has an almost psychological backbone, but when kids feel deprived (their perception, of course) of the foods they like, they may compensate with sneak eating.
This is why I believe it’s a good strategy to have a sweet policy in your home, which ideally outlines a plan for when sweets will be served, and identifies the frequency and amounts that will uphold your child’s health.
How do you manage sweets?
Need More Help?
If you need a better food balance in your home and want “systems” to carry out a healthier food environment in your home, check out my self-study program called The Nourished Child Project.
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: May 15, 2019
Updated on: September 21, 2019