How much sugar is too much for my child? Chances are, at some point or another, you’ve wondered if your child was becoming addicted to sugar. Wonder no more because I put this question to bed.
It can be concerning as a parent to see your child devour too many sweets, or to continually ask for treat after treat after treat. Do you give them more or do you limit them? How often do you offer them? What messages should you be sending about treats and sugar to your kids?
It’s already tough enough being a parent! Because let’s face it, we are all just doing our best and trying to raise healthy and independent eaters. But what if what you’re doing is actually causing harm? What if you’re enabling their love for sweets? These are legit concerns that we all have. I’m here to tell you that you can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that your child is and will be ok. Read on.
Let’s all chill out a bit when it comes to sugar and kids
There are so many myths out there about sugar. The biggest ones being that sugar is “addictive” and is linked to poor behaviour. Both wrong! Because despite what you may have heard or read, sugar does not cause kids to become hyperactive. Literature from 50 years ago, where researchers removed sugar from ONE chid’s diet, saw that their behaviour improved. That’s it! And multiple research studies since then have found no relationship between sugar and hyperactivity. Still, the belief that sweets play a role in behaviour remains strong among parents, when really, it’s likely more related to the environment and the excitement going on around them. Go figure!
Let’s cut to the chase… can my child become “addicted” to sugar?
Sugar–despite being previously reported as being more addictive than cocaine (YIKES)–is in fact NOT addictive. Phew! The “sugar addiction” research turned out to be somewhat flawed, mainly because it was a study done on rats (yes, rats!) who were denied all access to sugar, except during a limited time each day (when they received pure sugar). So basically, they were restricted all day, and then given a mega-dose of sweetness! No wonder these rodents were in an eating frenzy when finally given access to sugar (aka energy)! A review of the study found that if the rats had unrestricted access to sugar, they wouldn’t have shown addictive-like behaviours.
Although “added sugar” should be limited (more on this below), what this sugar addiction story tells us, is that if we forbid or restrict palatable food, we are more likely to over-consume (binge) on said forbidden food when it is present. This aligns strongly with the fact kids (and adults) are more likely to overeat when restricted.
What is Sugar?
When we talk about sugar, by default we picture that white stuff in the sugar bowl, or sugar in candy bars right? Correct! But sugar is found in a whole bunch of foods. This is where most people get confused. Let’s break it down.
Natural sugar is the sugar naturally found in whole goods such as fruit, vegetables, grains and starches, and milk. These foods are nutrient dense. These are the foods–as parents–that we want to offer most of the time. Kids have little tummies that need to be filled with mostly nutritious foods.
Added sugar is sugar that has been added to foods, such as in candy, baked goods, the sugar you sprinkle on your oatmeal etc. Added sugar should be limited, according to World Health Organization, to no more than 10% of a person’s daily caloric intake. For little ones (above 24 months), this means, on average, no more than 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, of added sugar per day. For reference, one mini can of gingerale or sprite contains 24 grams of sugar. Yikes! For toddlers and babies under 24 months, the recommendation is no added sugar (with the exception of their first birthday cake and the odd taste of ice cream or cookie–c’mon).
Now. Keeping this guideline in mind, it’s extremely important to follow the Division of Responsibility in Feeding (sDOR) when it comes to food (including treats). Read more on this below.
Why kids love sugar so much:
Many parents I chat with in my counselling practice are concerned about sugar and their child’s overall sweet tooth. The thing to remember is that kids have a natural affinity for sweetness. Breastmilk is naturally sweet! Sweetness tends to mean calorie/energy-rich, which historically, translated into survival. Sugar also triggers the happiness hormone (dopamine) which causes the body to relax and feel good. So it’s no wonder that kids (and adults) love sugar.
Ok, so how much is too much? How do I manage sugar intake with my kids?
For older toddlers and kids, sugar will be a fact of life. And as parents it’s our job to help them navigate treats and consume them in a healthy way. Completely eliminating added sugar is next to impossible (and not realistic).
It’s important to allow treats and sweets – to normalize them – so that they don’t become the “forbidden fruit”. Restricting or micromanaging them at home, at birthday parties or during the holidays will only lead to treat-obsessed kids. By allowing treats in our day-to-day lives, it takes them off their pedestal and makes it more likely that we’ll be choosy with them and eat them in moderation.
Some days have less treats (or even none) while others have more (let’s say around the holidays). There should be flexibility within your life, especially when it comes to treats and special occasions, while still keeping in mind the 10% guideline (see above) as an average or base.
How does this fit into the Division of Responsibility of Feeding (sDOR)?
When it comes to kids and sugar (and feeding in general), I’m a huge fan of Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility (DOR) and her view on treats. If you’re not familiar with the sDOR let me give you the run-down. Basically – as a parent you are responsible for the what, when, and where food is served and your child’s responsibility is to determine if they are going to consume it, and how much. By following this model of eating you are trying to teach your child how to be a competent and independent eater. It also allows them to honour their hunger and trust their body, which is great for developing a long-term positive eating relationship.
But you might ask yourself “how could I possibly give my child more of the treat food (ie. cookie) if they haven’t touched the nutritious food (ie. apple)?!” Fair.
It seems strange, but the same sDOR rules still apply, with a few caveats. Satter recommends including treats (non-nutritive, higher calorie foods) at scheduled meals and snack times. For example, you can offer cookies as part of a snack, treat alongside a meal or as dessert after a meal.
If treats are offered at snacktime, Satter suggests offering unlimited amounts, meaning your child is allowed to eat as many cookies as they’d like. Gulp. But wait. I’m telling you– it works. I do this randomly by offering a nutritious snack (let’s say apples and cheese and crackers) WITH a plate-full of cookies too.
When offering dessert or a treat WITH a meal or after a meal, Satter recommends serving a single portion for everyone. No seconds. Although this sort of goes against the sDOR, the reason she suggests a single portion is because kids will often take the “easy way out” and fill up on treat foods and leave the rest of the nutrition foods. Kids need nutritious foods to thrive. The point of offering a treat alongside a meal is to neutralize them–put them on a level playing field with the other foods.
The bottom line when it comes to treats is that too much restriction or “forbidding” only makes them more sought-after. Research shows that kids who are restricted often overeat when forbidden foods are available, hungry or not. The Satter treat strategy allows kids to become more relaxed and casual with treat foods and desserts.
So, parents–your kids are not and will not become addicted to sugar, nor will it affect their behaviour or make them hyperactive. It is absolutely normal for them to want and love sugary treats, and it’s absolutely okay for you to offer them. Use Satter’s dessert strategy and do your best not to restrict or micromanage sugary foods and treats too much (even though this can be hard). Enjoy treat and desserts with your kids and maybe even bake some yummy holiday cookies together!
For more information about managing treats and your child’s relationship with sugar check out the blog posts listed below:
Amanda Hamel says
There’s a lot of buzz around this topic. Thanks for breaking it down so well, Sarah! I will be sharing with my colleagues :).
insightful and helpful article. thank you for sharing
Christy Brissette says
So difficult to navigate without making our kids feel deprived. Satter really is my go-to on this and love how you highlighted her thoughts along with your own. Thanks for this post!
Amy Gorin says
The tips for language to use was super helpful in this article. Whether you’re a parent or have nieces and nephews, this is great to know!
Samina Qureshi says
Great breakdown! I love how you encourage normalizing sugar and treats so children and parents don’t categorize these foods as “good” or “bad”.
Kara Lydon says
Amazing job with this post! Love all the information and points you made. Such a great topic this time of year.
Melissa Altman-Traub says
Excellent advice. A lot of people really do believe sugar is addictive and causes hyperactivity!
Heidi Moretti says
Thanks for these reminders! While almost all kids overeat sugar and processed foods, parents need to keep the big picture in mind.
Abby Langer says
Such a great reminder, especially around the holidays, when parents are already stressed out.