Learn why kids love sweets, how to handle your child’s love of sweet foods, and how you can help keep a healthy balance to his diet.
If your child is constantly craving sugar, you may be worried. Yes, kids are eating more sweets than ever.
It’s true, some parents fear their child is developing a sugar addiction.
My Child is Constantly Craving Sugar
“Every time I take my child to the grocery store, she begs and begs me for sugary cereal,” said Jennifer, a mom of two kids under the age of six. “I don’t want to go over-board with sweets and sugar, yet I don’t want to make them ‘forbidden fruit’ and contribute to her sugar cravings, either.“
Some parents find themselves in a quandary when it comes to sweets and other sugary foods. They worry sweet food and treats are playing too big a role in their child’s diet.
They fret that the exposure to sugar is getting out of hand (some of which they have little control over) and a sugar addiction is developing.
Other families struggle to see the totality of eating sugar and excess sweet food in their children’s diets.
How Many Sweets for Children are Okay?
Questions surround the issue of eating sweets, partly because they are a prominent food source in many kids’ eating patterns.
Should they be tightly controlled? Can children have free rein and eat them until they’re satisfied?
And what constitutes a sweet food?Should sweets be tightly controlled? Should kids have free reign and eat as much as they want? Click To Tweet
Undoubtedly, American children love sweets. And, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), young Americans are eating too much added sugar.
In other words, eating sweets is becoming an undesirable cornerstone of the American diet.
A 2012 study looking at the consumption patterns of added sugar in youth from 2005 to 2008, researchers found the following eating patterns among kids:
|Age||Avg. daily calorie intake from added sugar in Males|
|Avg. daily calorie intake from added sugar in Females|
|2-5 year olds||218 calories||195 calories|
|6-11 year olds||345 calories||293 calories|
|12-18 year olds||442 calories||314 calories|
Boys ate more sweet food than girls, and the types of sweets consumed were largely from food rather than drinks, and were mostly consumed at home.
I’m Afraid My Child is Addicted to Sugar
Statements like “eat less,” or “eat sweets in moderation,” or even “avoid all sweets,” may confuse parents, leaving them wondering exactly what they should do.
Especially if they feel their child has sugar cravings and seems to be developing a sugar addiction.
Some parents will fall into the ‘no sweets at all’ camp, eliminating every speck of sugar from the home. Their hope is to improve the situation and dull their child’s interest in them.
What often happens in this scenario is what Jennifer feared: a child who is constantly craving sugar and becoming overly focused, or even addicted to sweets.
Other parents may know their child eats too many sweets, but they don’t know what to do about it.
They’re stuck in an unhealthy and unproductive pattern that doesn’t serve their child’s health.
Just today in the grocery store, I saw a mom and her preschooler pick out chocolate pudding for a snack.
Chocolate pudding isn’t necessarily problematic in and of itself (read more about chocolate milk here), but I found myself wondering if she thought about balance and the totality of other foods eaten during the day.
Is a Sugar Addiction in Kids Real?
Sugar turns on the reward center in the brain. Dopamine, the feel good chemical, not only elicits good feelings, it tells your child to keep doing the thing that makes them feel good.
But can kids truly be addicted?
Not in the same way as a person can be addicted to drugs. So you can rest-assured: There is no evidence that sugar addiction is a thing in kids.
But, do kids love sweets? Yes.
Do they get excited when they can eat them? Probably.
Can a child appear to be constantly craving sugar? Of course.
Does this equal addiction? Unlikely.
How Much Sugar a Day for Kids
There are a few things to keep in mind as you navigate sugary foods and treats for kids:
1. For children under the age of two:
For young toddlers, eating sugar shouldn’t be part of the regular diet at all.
In fact, if you can hold off on introducing them until after age two, you’ll get a head start on helping your child develop taste buds and a preference for healthier food.
I do think it’s okay for young ones to have birthday cake—all of my kiddos did.
The main point is to steer away from regularly offerings sweet foods in the first two years of life.
2. For older kids and teens:
Staying away from eating sugar is really hard, especially as children get older.
This is one reason you may get frustrated with them – they’re everywhere and trying to control them is impossible.
And it’s why you need a plan for sweets at home.
Adding to the confusion are the two different recommendations regarding sugar intake in children. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) states that sugar should be less than 10% of the total daily calories.
The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests no more than 5% of daily total calories should come from added sugar.
Personally and professionally, I line up with the WHO, advising families to keep sweets to one or two items per day if the child is a healthy, normally growing, active child.
Why Does My Child Crave Sugar?
There are many reasons why a child might be drawn to sugary foods. For one, both amniotic fluid and breast milk are sweet and this presets a preference for sweet flavors.
I talk about this in my podcast interview with renowned flavor preference researcher, Dr. Julie Mennella.
Children also taste sweet flavors intensively which triggers feel good chemicals in the brain.
Other reasons exist too, like needing more energy for the body, and hunger.
Carbohydrates, which are found in high concentrations in sugary foods, signal energy and can quickly satisfy a hungry child.
Other reasons like boredom, habits, and just a positive association with eating sweets and treats can underline the draw to sweet foods.
How to Help the Child Who is Craving Sweets
Despite having an idea of how to balance foods so that children eat mostly healthy food with small amounts of sweets, you may need some additional guidelines. I’ve got some for you!
Kids are naturally drawn to sweets, so it isn’t their fault if they like to eat them.
Don’t blame your child (or yourself) if his taste buds like sweets, rather accept it as a natural part of the childhood nutrition experience.
That said, develop your sweets strategy!
You can make sweets a part of your everyday life, or not. I always had a “no sweets during the school week” rule, and let my kids have more liberty with them on the weekends.
That worked well for us.
Some parents are more comfortable offering them everyday (which is ok), and others are not.
Find your comfort zone where you can draw the line, giving consideration to what you can mentally and emotionally handle, and what is good for your child and the whole family.
Change the definition of sweet foods
Sweets don’t always have to equal sugary foods.
How about a bowlful of fruit with a dollop of vanilla yogurt?
Or a piece of peanut butter toast with a few chocolate chips perched on top?
The point is, “dessert” doesn’t have to be drenched in sugar. And, even traditional sweet recipes can be scaled down to minimize the sugar rush.
How to Stop Sugar Cravings
Some kids are more sensitive to food cues, such as the sight or smell of food.
This means having the temptation of sweets always around may be unhelpful for these children because they will have a hard time self-regulating their behavior – eating – around them.
If this is your child, less is more. Consider removing the temptation if sweets trigger your child’s eating or cravings.
Offer other satisfying, nutritious snack options.
Do set up predictable times for sweets, however, to help them know when they can be expected and to avoid feelings of food restriction or scarcity.
How do you handle the sweet stuff in your house?
Need More Help for the Child Who’s Craving Sugar?
Want your child to eat healthier foods? Check out my workbook, Try New Food. It takes you step-by-step through the process of helping your child try new food, no matter how picky he is.
This article was originally published in February, 2018 | Updated October 2022.