Should you indulge your child's sweet tooth?

A child with a raging sweet tooth can't pass up a colorful lollipop.
A child with a raging sweet tooth can't pass up a colorful lollipop.
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Kids and sweets go together like peanut butter and jelly. Or peanut butter and Fluff. And both of those accompaniments -- jelly or Fluff -- can be loaded with sugar. Which, of course, makes those sandwiches considerably more appetizing to most kids. So is it OK to indulge your child's sweet tooth? And how much is too much?

The simple answer to the first question is "yes," provided you don't go overboard. Like any guilty pleasure, such as television or amusement park rides, youngsters will gobble as many sweets as you give them -- and then ask for more. You can't expect them to say "Enough." It's important to remember that a parent's first responsibility to their children is to be a guardian and caregiver, not a friend or playmate.

The dietary guidelines you set for your children, both at home and away, often set the tone for the rest of their lives. Here is where the second question comes into play. Getting an accurate answer to "How much is too much?" is difficult, due to the wide range of body types, metabolism rates and activity levels among children.

That said, eating habits are exactly that: habits. And once they become ingrained, detrimental habits are difficult to break. The rule of thumb ought to be "everything in moderation." When using sugar, less is better. Limit additional sweeteners, such as sprinkling it on breakfast cereals (which already contain more sugar than most parents realize), or adding too much to drinks such as lemonade. Make fudge squares or ice cream a special treat, not an everyday occurrence.

One of the best ways to indulge your child's sweet tooth is to occasionally enhance their diets with sweets that are better for them. Opt for natural substitutes, which are healthier and, in many instances, every bit as tasty. Favorite natural alternatives include flavored seltzer waters (maybe with a fresh-squeezed lemon, lime or orange), fresh fruit, yogurt and frozen snacks made from real fruit juice. Just remember, even all-natural fruit juices can have high sugar content.

So, what's so bad about sugar?

Is sugar really all that bad?

Sugars and starches are important carbohydrates, key building blocks of a well-rounded diet. But there's a big difference between natural sugars found in organic foods, such as fruit, and refined or processed sugar. The latter has absolutely no nutritional value, and little dietary value other than making boring foods a bit more palatable. It contains no vitamins and no minerals. It is, essentially, empty calories. And according to some estimates, those "empty" calories can make up more than a quarter of the daily caloric intake of the average teenager.

Now, consider the importance of nutrition, especially to a growing child. Think about how critical a healthy diet is to his or her development, both physically and mentally. Then ask yourself if you really want to allocate a large portion of their diet to a product that provides no benefit. Kids become overweight simply because they consume more calories than they burn, leading to weight gain.

Again, the key is moderation. That holds true for both natural and refined sugars, from dried fruits to candy bars to soft drinks. While an average 12-ounce can of soda (340.2 grams) contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar and 160 calories, some natural fruit juices can have roughly the same amount. And remember, that 12-ounce soda is going to pack a much bigger sugar wallop for a 60-pound (27-kilogram) youngster compared to a 170-pound (77-kilogram) adult [source: Scott].

The same can be said for many popular sports and energy drinks. While these are marketed toward athletes as recovery and rehydration drinks, they can also supply an overabundance of calories if the consumer is more sedentary.

Where do you find the sugar?

Becoming an Avid Label Investigator

If you want to know the sugar content of what you're feeding your children, you need to take the time to read labels. Encourage your children to do the same. Unfortunately, though, food product labels can sometimes appear to be written in hieroglyphics, so you have to be able to discern what's in pre-packaged foods if you hope to provide a balanced diet for your family.

The sad reality is that the majority of prepared foods targeted to kids are simply loaded with sugar [source: Hitti]. Ingredients are listed in descending order of their percentage, from highest to lowest. The catch is that sugary ingredients are often cleverly disguised.

For example, a popular fat-free "fruit snack," boasting that it's "made with real fruit," offers 100 percent Vitamin C and no preservatives, lists its top four ingredients as: juice from concentrate, corn syrup, sugar and modified corn starch. Not exactly the "breakfast of champions." Even "healthy" snacks, such as a highly rated brand of granola bars, features brown rice syrup and evaporated cane juice crystals as two of its top four ingredients.

Savvy shoppers must be on the lookout for sugar-type ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup, corn sweeteners, fruit-juice concentrate, evaporated cane juice, maltodextrin, barley malt, molasses, honey and anything ending in "ose," such as sucrose, glucose, lactose, dextrose and maltose.

If you drink juice, opt for those labeled "100 percent juice." Many pediatricians recommend eating, rather than drinking, whole fruits and supplementing that portion of their diet with pure water [source: WebMD].

Is it wise, then, to prohibit sweets completely?

Should you ban sweets altogether?

Unless there is a specific health risk, similar to nut allergies, the idea of banning sugar altogether is overkill. By doing so, you run the risk of creating an unnecessary temptation (and, honestly, who doesn't occasionally crave the very things we can't have). Instead, permit your children to enjoy the occasional treat, while supplementing their sweet tooth with a more nutritious and balanced diet.

At parties, where sweets are almost mandatory, make sure to have plenty of non-sugar-containing snack options for your guests. And while there is no proven link between sugar and hyperactivity, research shows that the "sugar rush" and "post-sugar crash" phenomenon are a reality. The reasons are fairly straightforward: Consuming too much sugar prompts the body to produce insulin, which initially prompts a "sugar rush," but eventually results in a drop of blood-sugar levels. That can leave your child feeling lethargic or listless. It can also encourage your child to eat more sugar, creating an unwanted cyclical effect.

The best approach, say nutritionists, is to provide balanced snacks along with the sweets, and ration just how many sugar-based snacks are available. Frozen fruit smoothies are a terrific alternative, provided you make them yourself, and control the amount of sugar used. Store-bought, prepared smoothies might look the same, but like any pre-packaged product, they can have a much higher sugar content.

Lastly, set a good example in your own daily eating habits. And don't worry about enjoying the occasional sweet with your children -- if you don't make a big deal of it, your kids won't either. However, make sure you enjoy those treats within reason. Your children will learn that lesson as well.

Ready for a snack? We've got lots more information for you on the next page.

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Sources

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  • Hitti, Miranda. "Kids' Diets Have Too Much Added Sugar." WebMD. Jan. 13, 2005. (Aug. 22, 2011)
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