How to Handle Sugar in the Diet : a Sticky Subject Simplified

Marshmallow peeps, pastel covered candies, and Cadbury eggs are all around us at the grocery store. Ironically, it is also National Nutrition Month and a time of year when registered dieticians make a point to help teach the public how to make more informed food choices and develop sound eating and physical activity habits. 

With this dichotomy can come a lot of questions over if/whether and how much candy is okay for our kids. We know our children get wide-eyed and eager for the sweet stuff as Easter approaches and even as adults, many of us enjoy the excuse to splurge a bit more with this Spring holiday as well. But in a food-culture that is becoming more aware about the foods we put in our bodies and feed our families, many parents are left feeling uncertain and too often ashamed about if/whether they allow their kids to enjoy the occasional “treat.”

So how do we handle sugar in our family’s diets without making it feel like a “forbidden food” nor a complete free-for-all?

Here are six simple takeaways on the sticky subject of sugar:

  1. Understand the real problem. Sugar in and of itself is not the problem. While it can be reason for concern when our children (or us as parents!) eat so many foods with added sugar that they begin to displace other nourishing foods in the diet, this is only the tip of the iceberg. We need to promote eating habits that emphasize nourishing, nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grain, healthy fats, and lean proteins without feeling tempted to completely eliminate “fun foods” from our kids diet. Overly restricting such sugar-sweetened foods can establish the real problem of an unhealthy relationship with foods. Instead, parents need to find the balance for how all foods fit with their family.
  2. Define healthy in your home. The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that both adults and children alike should limit their intake of added sugar to approximately 10% of their total calories (or less). While you can find out how to calculate exactly how much sugar this is for you or your child here, the general rule of thumb goes back to a 90/10 rule. This means for a preschooler who consumes an average of 1,000 calories per day, about 100 of those calories per day may come from a “sometimes food” (or one that holds little to no nutritional value). As your child gets bigger and their appetite increases, the margin for how many such “discretionary calories” also increases to allow for more “sometimes foods.” In general though, using this ratio of “everyday foods” to “sometimes foods” provides a general framework that can apply to any member of your family at any age. It also helps children to understand how all foods can fit proportionately as part of a healthy diet.
  3. Avoid labels. Good versus bad, healthy versus unhealthy, guilt-free versus indulgent, dieting versus cheating. These are all terms we as adults may catch ourselves or others using when we talk about the difference between the foods we “should” eat versus those we know we aren’t “supposed to” eat. We need to be more careful though with how we raise our children to relate with such foods. Instead, we want to raise children who see food as just food without creating a negative emotional response of guilt, failure, or judgement. The goal of talking about any food with our child should be helping them understand if and how it best fits as a picture of overall health.
  4. Encourage pleasure. The reality is sugar and the highly palatable foods that it is often added to are highly pleasurable to eat. That’s why it is so easy to eat such foods even when we don’t necessarily feel hungry otherwise. This is also why we as parents need to role model to our children how to sit, taste, and savour sweets not in secrecy but rather as part of celebrated and/or shared experience. Whether it be siblings sharing homemade cookies with milk as part of an afternoon snack or enjoying an ice cream date as a family, showing our children how to slow down and enjoy sweets in an unashamed fashion helps demonstrate how sweets can fit as part of a healthy lifestyle.
  5. Avoid reward. One way we can make sweets taste even more appealing to our kids is by restricting them or elevating them to “reward status.” When parents use desserts (and other “sometimes foods”) to try to control a behavior, it often backfires. Tactics like bribery, pressure, and force with desserts usually reinforce to the child that healthy foods are not that pleasurable – hence why parents feel the need to pressure a child to eat “healthy” foods in exchange for more palatable ones. Instead, parents need to offer sweets and other “sometimes” foods on a predictable schedule, free from any form of pressure.
  6. Practice self-regulation. Children need to learn how to manage eating sweets on their own. If they only know how to regulate their appetite for “sometimes foods” with the input of us as their parents, we do them a disservice for how to handle the overwhelming amount of sugar in the real world. Instead, we as parents can help empower our children to practice self-regulation starting at a young age. By deciding when and what “desserts” are made available, parents should allow their child to practice managing their appetite around these foods without limiting them to a set amount. For many parents, this notion is scary because we adults don’t trust ourselves around sugar, candy, and other “sometimes foods.” However, by instilling in our children the ability to practice both self-control and feelings of satiety without shame around sugar, we empower them to balance a healthy diet where all foods fit for life.

Whether you choose to include candy in your child’s Easter basket or not is up to you. Hopefully this post has provided you with practical action steps though to better understand what everyday habits you can establish to better handle sugar in your home year round.

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Contributor
Ashley Smith is a pediatric dietitian and mom to two apprehensive eaters (ages 4 and 2). Her mission is to bring other families less meal time stress and more feeding success. Ashley does this each week through sharing simple approaches to meal planning and effective strategies for raising healthy eaters. Follow her on Instagram @veggiesandvirtue or her blog, www.veggiesandvirtue.com.


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