When it comes to limiting candy, sweets and desserts, parents seem to be sandwiched between scary media headlines about the dangers of sugar craving and resistance from their kids who care much more about flavor than about nutrition.
Government reports indeed confirm that kids are eating too much sugar. But, as we know from the research, restrictive feeding practices are rarely effective and may backfire.
So what can we do to manage our kids’ sugar cravings without being overly restrictive?
First, let’s look into what type of sugar we need to be worried about.
Which sugar we should be worried about?
Only added sugar needs to be limited.
Fruit and dairy also contain specific types of naturally occurring sugars, fructose and lactose. But since they don’t have the same physiological effects on the body and come in a very nutritious package, we do not need to worry about them.
Added sugars, on the other hand, are added to food to improve its palatability. There are many types and forms of added sugar: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, and sucrose.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to under 25g or 6 tsp for kids 2 to 18 years of age.
The UK National Health Service (NHS) recommends limiting added sugars to:
- 19g or 5 tsp for kids 4 to 6
- 24g or 6 tsp for kids 7 to 10
- 30g or 7 tsp for teens and adults.
Also: No added sugar in food or drinks is recommended for kids under 2 years of age by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Restrictive feeding practices are counterproductive
It’s clear that we should somehow limit the amount of sugar kids eat.
Kids are wired to enjoy and seek sweet flavors and our food environment is overflowing with sweets, snacks and treats. So we do not want to leave them at its mercy without any limits of guidance.
But research shows that restriction can feel too controlling and intrusive. Besides, by restricting certain foods, we are more likely to achieve the opposite effect of what we intend to do when the attraction of sweets is increased, and kids overeat them even when they are not hungry anymore.
In the long term, kids who were restricted are more likely to struggle with self-regulation when eating palatable foods.
In other words, it may seem easy to restrict kids when they are under our immediate control. But once they are grown up and leave our homes, it is likely that they will be overeating the very foods we were trying so hard to restrict when they were little.
Some research also suggests that in children who are more predisposed to obesity, restriction elicits an even stronger negative response, which makes it even harder for them to self regulate around their sugar cravings.
How to cope with sugar cravings without restricting?
As in many areas of parenting, managing our kids’ intake of added sugar without overly restricting is all about finding a middle ground.
My professional standpoint, supported by the current scientific literature, is a moderate control of sweets achieved by focusing on structure instead of micromanagement.
Structure is a set of clear and consistent limits that take our kids’ perspective into an account and provides clear consequences for actions.
Unlike restriction, structure provides the routine and guidance that allow the kids to learn to self regulate within the limits we provide and helps them feel trusted.
How to implement more structure around sweets at home
- Routine. All food, including sweets, should be served at snack and meal times, at a table. If chicken and potatoes are served at dinner time and sweets are enjoyed on the sofa while watching TV at any time of the day, sweets get an additional advantage over savory meals. (Like they need another one!)
That’s why, if you decide to serve sweets, it’s important that they served at a table, together with other meal and snack offerings. In fact, you may want to serve them alongside the savory options, not at the end of the meal.
- Limits. It’s up to the parents to decide how often they want to bring sweets home. It’s also up to the parents to decide how often they will be serving them. Each family can have its own policy and philosophy around eating sweets.
Some families have dessert daily and others a few times a week. But it’s very important that the kids are involved in developing the family’s approach to sweets and dessert and know exactly when they will get access to them.
- Serving size. The recommended serving size should be quite small so that if kids decide to start their meal with sweets, they will still have an appetite for the rest of the meal. It’s normal, especially for smaller children, to start (and sometimes end) their meal with the dessert, especially at dinner. What is a small serving size? A small oreo cookie, a very thin sliver of cake or a few chocolate chips ar all good examples.
How to can help kids relax around sweets even more
Registered Dietitian and creator of the model of the Division of Responsibility in feeding, Ellyn Satter, recommends that parents provide unlimited access to sweet from time to time.
Such opportunities allow kids to eat as much as they want, learn to self regulate, as well as discover the unpleasant consequences of overeating candy, like a tummy ache.
Holidays like Halloween or Valentine’s Day can be perfect opportunities to practice unlimited access to candy and to implement structure around eating the leftovers.
Example – Halloween candy:
The parent who restricts:
- Forbids collecting candy
- Throws candy away
- Talks extensively about the negative health consequences of sugar
- Dismisses the child’s desire to eat candy and sweets as a bad behavior
- Sets arbitrary and inconsistent limits on when and how much leftover candy can be eaten in the following days. For example, may allow 3 pieces one day, 4 another day and no candy on the third day.
- Uses candy to manipulate the child’s behavior around food, i.e. get the child to eat vegetables
The parent who implements structure:
- Considers the child’s perspective and allows trick or treating if the child wants
- Understands the child’s desire to eat candy and help them enjoy the holiday and have fun without judgment
- Avoids walking around for too long so the amount of candy the child brings home is not excessive
- Provides regular access to scheduled meals and snacks where a variety of food is served
- Emphasizes the need to eat a variety of foods and enjoy a variety of flavors
- Sets clear limits on how much candy can be eaten every day and clearly indicates at which meal/snack the candy will be served
- Involves the child in decision making when appropriate. For example, older children may prefer to have more than 1 piece of candy a day, etc.
A structure-based approach can give parents the peace of mind they need. it also provides kids with clear developmentally appropriate limits and allows them to practice self-regulation.
But what is even better, kids who have regular structured access to their favorite food learn to eat in response to hunger and stay at a healthier weight.
Would you like to get a step-by-step plan to help you manage sweets naturally, without overly restricting? I created Kids and Sweets mini-course, complete with short bite-sized videos (45min total), a handout for a quick reference, curated selection of low sugar recipes and a list of exact phrases to use when talking to kids about sweets, treats and desserts. Get it here for only $19.99.
Rollins, B. Y., Savage, J. S., Fisher, J. O., and Birch, L. L. ( 2016) Alternatives to restrictive feeding practices to promote self‐regulation in childhood: a developmental perspective. Pediatric Obesity, 11: 326– 332. doi: 10.1111/ijpo.12071.