- Sugar can be a source of much-needed energy for kids.
- Sugar doesn't cause hyperactivity, but other eating issues can impact behavior.
- Having strong limits around sweet foods can actually increase kids' focus on them.
When my first daughter was a toddler, I believed there was one fierce threat to her health: Sugar. Juice, in particular, seemed particularly dangerous and I guarded against it as stealthfully as a momma bear protecting her precious cub from a pack of wolves.
It wasn’t until I found my four-year-old hiding behind a table at a birthday party, surrounded by five or six sucked-dry juice boxes that it occurred to me that perhaps I’d created a problem. Juice, unlike a pack of wolves, can be delightful.
More than a decade later, I can say with certainty that as parents, our fear of sugar is the real threat to our kids’ nutritional well-being. It's most often what gets in the way of them having a positive relationship with this simple pleasure. Here are a few reasons to rethink your approach to sugary sweets, which could help you raise a happier, healthier eater.
1. Sugar Is a Good Source of Much-Needed Energy. Sugar is a type of carbohydrate, a vital nutrient that your child’s body needs to grow. It’s believed that one of the reasons we’re hard-wired to have a preference for sweeter-tasting foods as kids is because our body knows that glucose is a quick source of energy, and during periods of rapid growth, we need lots of energy.
If your child prefers a plate of cookies or a bowl of ice cream over a pile of steamed broccoli or a slice of pork tenderloin, this is biological intelligence. Yes, broccoli is high in vitamins but it’s also low in calories (i.e., energy). Pork is a great source of protein, but it takes a long time for the body to digest and extract energy from it.
Are there so-called "better" foods from which we can get energy-generating carbohydrates? Well, it depends on what you're after. Yes, the sugar found in whole-grain breads, beans, potatoes, or an apple often comes bound with more vitamins and minerals than you might find in a cake pop. Yet the cake pop's carbohydrates are less complex and their glucose is more easily absorbed by the blood and turned into energy. They're a faster, more efficient source if you will. And your child's brilliant body knows it.
When you see your child go wide-eyed as you pass a candy store or donut shop, it can be helpful to remind yourself that it's not a sign that they’re destined to be unhealthy or are sugar-obsessed. It's a predilection that makes perfect sense.
2. Sugar Does Not Cause Hyperactivity. This myth has been debunked by researchers more than once. (1,2) If you swear your child is the exception, consider a few alternatives as to why they may get riled up after popping a few pieces of candy in their mouths or downing a heavily frosted cupcake.
First, there's confirmation bias. Yes, we believe that the sugar is going to ramp them up and, thus, we search for evidence of it as soon as they dig in. My daughters are doing laps around the house on Halloween? It's all that sugar. That little boy has been going wild in the bounce house all afternoon? It's all that sugar.
There are a couple of things that could be causing the behavior. For one, kids tend to have the freedom to enjoy sugary foods at celebrations and candy-fueled holidays. There’s a lot of excitement in that fact, especially if it's something they don't get to enjoy often. There's also a lot of build-up to special events, and occasionally a lot of emotion at celebrations, in general. Feeling extra energized or acting out is a lot more likely in these situations, regardless of whether or not sugar is eaten.
Additionally, on these occasions, kids tend to eat high-sugar foods without much else alongside them. Who hasn’t raced through dinner–or pushed it aside altogether–on Halloween eve? Or lost track of what they did or didn’t eat at a bustling birthday party before the cake was served? Eating high-sugar foods on an empty stomach can amplify the blood-sugar-rising—and then crashing—impact. Of course, some dramatic changes in behavior can go along with that.
To mitigate the crashes, give your child an opportunity to enjoy some protein-or-fat-containing foods alongside or just before sweets. Since these nutrients take a longer time to digest, they slow the release of sugar into your child's bloodstream, helping to keep them more even-keeled emotionally.
Lastly, thanks to all the conflict and fear many of us parents feel around sugar, we tend to limit it or have strong rules around sugary foods. When they're finally allowed, shazam! It's thrilling! (Remember when everyone was finally allowed to freely get down in the final scene of Footloose? Over-the-top excitement, right?)
3. Sugar Tastes Sweeter When We Have Fewer Chances to Eat It. Surprising as it may seem, the law of diminishing returns applies to sugar foods: The more we eat a certain food, the less appealing it becomes.
Don't believe your child could ever tire of Double-Stuffed Oreos or Sour Patch Kids? Well, in fact, they can. The phenomenon is called sensory-specific satiety. (3) Depending on a host of factors, including how responsive they are to certain foods and how much experience they've had with them in the past, the point at which they tire will differ.
The problem is that when it comes to such highly desirable foods, children rarely get to figure out this stopping point for themselves. That one- or two-cookie limit can leave them thinking that two, three, or five more would be even better with no real experience to prove otherwise. Restricted foods become even more sought after and we tend to feel less in control when we finally do allow ourselves to eat them.
Could I have avoided my daughter’s juice obsession by throwing my hands up and letting her imbibe as much apple juice, fruit punch, and pink lemonade as she wanted, whenever she wanted? No; but I’ve since learned that quelling my food fears and giving her more opportunities to enjoy it in a structured way alongside other foods would have worked a lot better. Then and only then would she be able to figure out on her own that very subtle point when the syrupy liquid stopped tasting so darn good.
If I'd had the courage to allow her the freedom to develop this valuable eating skill on her own, she could've put the juice box down and wandered over to marvel at the clown talking to a monkey on his shoulder instead.
Refutes Sugar Addiction: Westwater ML, Fletcher PC, Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. Eur J Nutr. 2016 Nov;55(Suppl 2):55-69. doi: 10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6. Epub 2016 Jul 2. PMID: 27372453; PMCID: PMC5174153.
Wolraich ML, Lindgren SD, Stumbo PJ, Stegink LD, Appelbaum MI, Kiritsy MC. Effects of diets high in sucrose or aspartame on the behavior and cognitive performance of children. N Engl J Med. 1994 Feb 3;330(5):301-7. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199402033300501. PMID: 8277950.
Barbara J. Rolls, Sensory-specific Satiety, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 44, Issue 3, March 1986, Pages 93–101, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.1986.tb07593.x