Jane’s little guy seemed to be developing a sweet habit. Super alert to desserts and asking for them all the time, Jane worried that she had a sweet-fixated child.
Jane was not alone in her concerns about sweets. Like her, some parents wonder and worry that their child is becoming fixated on food, especially sweets.
They notice a preoccupation with sugary foods, a change in their child’s behavior when around them, or a growing preference for sweet foods. They worry their child is developing a sweet habit.
What is Behind a Sweet Fixation, Anyway?
There are a couple of reasons your child may be triggered by sweets.
For one, at birth, babies may be programmed to like sweet flavors because amniotic fluid is sweet, containing the flavors and odors of the mother’s diet.
Breast milk is also sweet, so if you breastfed your child, that innate preference for sweetness was reinforced.
Another reason has to do with the brain and its pleasure centers, which are turned on by highly palatable foods, such as those containing sugar, fat, and salt.
In other words, these foods trigger feel-good brain chemicals such as 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.
Another factor is palatability—or how good certain foods taste. In children, the flavors they taste reinforce their food preferences.
The more they taste sweet foods, for example, the more they like them, and the more they want to eat them.
And still another explanation is in the training of young children’s palates to like sweets simply through early introduction of them in their diet.
For example, young toddlers who sip on mommy’s soda or eat lollipops are building food preferences for sweets simply due to exposure to them.
Last, if you’re not feeding your child on a schedule that offers up food every 3 hours or so, and/or he isn’t getting enough calories or nutrients to eat throughout the day, he may be seeking quick carbs (sugary foods) to satisfy his appetite, boost those feel-good hormones in the brain, and bump up his blood sugar. In the end, a structured approach to feeding is what helps your child grow healthfully.
What You Can Do to Help
Neutralize the Power of Sweets
Have you ever thought about serving sweets with mealtime? That’s how they do it in school—served right on the tray with lunch.
Try offering sweets as part of the meal, in a small dish or as a pre-portioned serving. Your child may eat it first, or last, but it all goes down the same hatch, so to speak.
Serving sweets alongside other meal components equalizes its status to other mealtime foods and teaches your child that all foods can be included in a healthy meal.
Be sure not to make sugary foods an issue by putting strict limitations on them. This may increase their desirability and cause other issues including sneaking, tantrums and other undesirable behavior.
Better yet, have a strategic plan in place for allowing sweets in your child’s diet.
Do You Know Where Sugar Shows Up?
There are obvious sources of sugar such as desserts and sugary beverages, and there are hidden sugar sources that are harder to identify, such as the sugar found in cereal, sweetened yogurt, flavored milk and other kid-friendly snacks.
Keep the obvious sources dialed in, but more importantly, watch out for the sneaky sources. Switch to low sugar cereals, plain or flavored yogurt, and save flavored milk for special occasions.
Read ingredients labels and watch out for added sugar (indicated by words like sucrose, dextrose and any other words ending in –ose).Keep the obvious sources of sugar dialed in, and watch out for the sneaky sources--they can add up quickly. Click To Tweet
Don’t Get Trapped by Substitutes
Artificial sweeteners, while they don’t contribute to the calorie bottom line, certainly taste sweet and may encourage the desire for more sweet tasting foods.
Set Up your Boundaries
Put food away after meals, have your child sit at the table to eat (even for snacks and dessert), and close the kitchen between meals and snacks.
This will curb free-range eating between meals and discourage pantry raids for sweets and other snacks.
Kids ask for the things they want—over and over– particularly if you’ve given in to their pestering in the past.
Constant questioning may be a sign that there is insecurity with or fixation on sweets. Don’t become too annoyed by this, as it is natural for children to want structure and predictability in their life. Build it!
Figure out a weekly plan for sweets, taking into account special occasions. Most children can have one or two child-sized, petite portions (worth about 100-200 calories per day) without harming their health.
Have your child take the time to enjoy eating sweets when they have them. No running around or mindless eating in front of the TV.
Have your child sit at the table or counter. In the end, you’ll be teaching good eating habits, and your child will get to enjoy and savor sweets.
Do Not Motivate Eating with Sweets
Offer sweets with a ‘no strings attached’ policy. If you do the opposite– entice your child’s eating with the reward of a treat—you’ll be inadvertently emphasizing the importance of sweets and perhaps elevating their status among other foods.
Don’t Tempt Fate
Having sweets around will certainly draw a child’s attention to them. Out of site, out of mind is the mantra that works for many young kids. As children age, though, they start to remember sweets (just like adults do!) and may persist in obtaining them when you’re not around.
If your child is developing a sweet habit, tell us how you’re managing it!
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: September 9, 2015
Updated on: May 8, 2019