3 Surprising Reasons for Your Child’s Sugar Addiction
October 24, 2022
Some kids are actually more aroused by sweets. They come by it naturally. Learn the three little-known reasons your child may seem to have a sugar addiction.
Kids today have unprecedented access to sugary foods. From candy and cookies to sweetened cereal and spaghetti sauce, sugar is present in many of the foods kids eat.
As a result, some of the latest consumption trends indicate that about 13% of what toddlers and kids eat and 14% of preteens and teens eat today contain added sugar.
Good news? That’s down a bit. But it’s still a considerable contribution to the overall eating pattern.
Top Line Reasons for a Sugar Addiction
The conventional wisdom points to access as one reason for a child’s sweet food fixation. Meaning, if your child can easily gain access to treats, they may become hooked on them.
For one, they may develop a heightened preference for them due to repeated exposure. Or two, they may simply develop a habit of eating them.
For some children, limiting access to sweets or making them a predictable occurrence in the eating routine can squelch some of the tendency toward what appears to be a sugar addiction.
But controlling or eliminating sweets from a child’s eating pattern can complicate things even further, as some children may perceive this to be punitive and restrictive.
Food restriction, especially sweet foods, can lead to a greater fixation on them.
If you’ve noticed your child is always asking about sweets, is more aroused or stimulated by sugary foods, or can’t regulate their eating around them, it’s not surprising you worry.
I’ve had many parents tell me they just know something is off.
Their child is not like others when it comes to their behavior around sweets and treats.
3 Little-Known Reasons Why Kids Can’t Control Themselves Around Sweets
In addition to easy access and tightly controlling sugary foods, there are other reasons why kids cannot control their behavior around sweets (and other foods for that matter).
These are rarely discussed, but I think if you have a child who seems to be triggered by sweets, then you need to appreciate what else might be going on.
It has to do with genetics and the brain.
Your Child May be Responsive to Food Cues
Just like how tall your child will become or what shape their body will take, kids can also inherit the genetic tendency to be what is called food responsive.
Food responsiveness is the state of being aroused by food cues like the appearance of food or their smells. It turns out this is an appetite trait that is genetically passed down.
Perhaps you can see this tendency in yourself, your partner, or other family members. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be excited about food, but it may influence your child’s eating behaviors.
This natural arousal, also called food approach, may spur your child’s appetite and strengthen the desire to eat.
Your Child May Have Poor Impulse Control
Children develop their executive functioning skills beginning around age four, and these are honed throughout childhood.
Part of executive functioning is the ability to control one’s own behavior, also known as inhibition, or impulse control.
Some children have a lowered ability to control their impulses.
For instance, some children with ADHD may have difficulty inhibiting their behavior. We can see this in the classroom and at home.
In turn, kids with poor executive functioning may show signs of impulsiveness with eating.
This can look like a loss of control with eating any kind of food, but it tends to happen with sugary foods.
The Brain Reward Pathway is Triggered
Dopamine is a hormone that is triggered in the brain by things that feel good. Dopamine is part of the reward pathway in the brain which keeps us doing the things that make us feel good.
Several things can set this pathway off, like listening to music, eating sweets and preferred foods, memories of good times, exercise, and even the use of drugs.
For many children, sweets are enjoyable to eat and they taste good, too.
Sweets are rewarding and they may trigger the brain reward pathway.
This alone may perpetuate eating more sweets.
Advice for Kids Who are Obsessed with Sweets
If your child is food responsive, challenged by executive functioning or controlling their impulses, increasing the access to sweets or having them readily available probably won’t help your child.
Your child may eat more sweets, further cementing the association of reward and pleasure in the brain and spurring your child to eat more.
This can be especially confusing if you’ve heard the “don’t restrict sweets” message.
While allowing regular access can be an approach that works for some kids, it won’t necessarily work for all kids.
Instead, structure and boundaries with food access and eating routines is the way to go.
You don’t have to get rid of sweets altogether, but you will need to have some predictable eating routines in place and an everyday sweet strategy that doesn’t make it more challenging than it needs to be for your child.
For kids who are food responsive or more impulsive, having less access and more limits around sweets may be just what they need to be successful.