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When Teens Can’t Stop Eating Sugar: 8 Simple Ways to Help

When teens can’t stop eating sugar, parents may worry about their eating habits and health. Understand why teens have sugar cravings, and how you can help without making it a bigger issue. 

Recently, a young client of mine asked for help with her sugar cravings. She said she couldn’t stop thinking about sweets and was losing control of her eating when she decided to eat them. 

“I want to know how to get rid of my sugar cravings,’ she said,

“I’m not sure it is entirely possible to get rid of sugar cravings,” I said. “But we can explore some ways to calm them down.”

In this article, I’ll offer up 8 tips to help the teen who can’t stop eating sweets. 

As a pediatric dietitian, I know that it’s upsetting to learn your child is overeating sweets. And if they’re eating on the sly (secret eating), losing control of their eating, or binge eating, you may be worried the behavior isn’t just about sugar, or an isolated incident.

When I hear words like “can’t stop eating sugar,” my mind goes to disordered eating. Mostly, however, these words represent how a parent is feeling about a teen’s eating behavior, rather than a factual behavior. 

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, binge eating is characterized by regular occasions of eating large amounts of foods, quickly and to the point of discomfort.

A binge is typically accompanied by a sense that one cannot stop, and may be followed by shame, distress, or guilt.

Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the U.S. Typically, a person with binge eating disorder doesn’t use actions, like vomiting, to correct the overeating.

If you suspect your teen has a problem with binge eating disorder, learn more here and talk with your healthcare professional.

teens eating cake in How to Help the Teen who Can't Stop Eating Sugar

Why Do Teens Crave High-Sugar Foods? 

The main reasons teens crave sugar, a carbohydrate, include physical hunger, growth, the reward center of the brain, and food parenting. 

If teens feel physical hunger, their body tells them it’s time to eat. And somehow they know that carbohydrates, especially simple carbohydrates, like sugar and sweet foods, do the trick – quickly!

Sugar also engages the pleasure center of the brain and the feel good chemicals, especially dopamine. Dopamine helps your teen remember that something tastes good and is enjoyable to eat. That memory triggers a desire to eat more sweets and get that dopamine hit, which feels good. This cycle is self-perpetuating.

Teens may be in a growth spurt, which triggers more of an appetite. 

Also, some parents may have an elevated concern about sweets and monitor their teen’s high sugar consumption habits, especially when they can’t stop eating sugar.

Parents may fall into the ‘no sweets at all’ camp, eliminating every speck of sugar from the home, hoping this will improve the sugar situation and control their teen’s eating.

However, teens, because they are independent, are able to acquire sweets on their own.  

Meaning, you don’t really have the control you used to have when your teen was younger, so trying to exert control, especially over food, often backfires.

It’s important to work with your teen rather than against him by controlling food too tightly.

Furthermore, the more you make sweets forbidden or taboo, the more your teen may want to eat them.

It’s reverse psychology.

Take them away or place strict limits, and they may be drawn to them more.

Listen: Food Restriction and Forbidden Food

Last, some teens may have simply developed a sugar habit, something that was probably initially rooted in one of the above. 

A quote about motivation in teenagers.

How to Help Your Teen Stop Eating Sweets

Desserts, candy and sugary drinks will always be around. They are not going to disappear.

While you may have the urge to control them and push for a healthy diet, doing so may cause more problems.

And that’s no good.

Yet, you probably don’t want to stand by, feeling helpless, watching your teen head down a path of overeating too much sugar.

As a registered dietitian, these are some things I work on with my clients, and you use them to help your teen tame the sweet tooth and eat less sugar: 

Teach Your Teen How to Better Balance All Foods

Sweets and treats are fine to eat, but they should make up roughly 10% of the daily diet, on average. This aligns with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for added sugar. 

This will be a stretch goal for many teens. Whatever the sugar content of your teen’s diet right now, try to reduce it a little bit.

Most of what teens eat should be nutritious foods from the food groups (protein foods, grains, fruit, vegetables, and dairy (or a fortified, non-dairy substitute).

Read: Managing Sweets with the 90-10 Rule

Let your teen in on this reasonable and attainable food balance. It allows them to have a sugary treat or two each day on average but doesn’t eliminate them.

Then, let go of the responsibility of executing it.

Your teen is smart enough to understand that daily treats are fine as long as they “fit” into a nutritious and varied diet.

Loosen the Reins On Sweets

It feels counter-intuitive to make sweets more available, but sometimes this is just what a teen needs, especially if they’ve been experiencing restriction.

For teens, it can be reassuring that they are there, and not taboo.

Regularly plan sweets into the week.

Make the sweet stuff predictable, such as homemade desserts on the weekend, or ice cream with family movie night.  

Don’t Shame or Blame Sugary Snacks

Try not to be judgmental about sweets and treats.

By the time your teen is a teen, I’m betting he’s heard plenty of “good food,” and “bad food” messages.

Save the lectures and the warnings about heart disease and cardiovascular disease for down the road.

They won’t change your teen’s liking of sweets and treats.

Making your teen feel badly about liking something, or wanting something, may push them toward it, rather than away from it.

(I remember the boyfriend my parents didn’t like. Man, did I want to hang out with him even more.)

Remember, teens are driven to be independent, are impulsive, and sometimes oppositional.

Taking a negative stance on sugary foods can fuel their oppositional fire.

“Mom thinks dessert is bad for me…Well, that’s a good reason to eat it, then!”

teen eating a bagel with jam

Promote Your Teen’s Autonomy

In the end, our job is to raise autonomous kids.

Kids who can take care of themselves, make good choices, and be self-sufficient.

During adolescence, it’s time to start handing over some of the decision-making around food and let the chips fall where they will. Let them head to the grocery store or the coffee shop. Yes, they may choose soft drinks or junk food. The bottom line: you don’t have control, they do. Start empowering them to make good decisions.

I remember saying to my teens, “It’s your body, you can make decisions about what goes into it.”

Role Model Healthy Eating

Even though it seems like your teen doesn’t care and isn’t watching you, they are.

My kids pay attention to what I make for dinner and how I feed myself at lunch.

They note what I choose to snack on. Yours do this, too.

I don’t need to tell you to eat what you want your teen to eat.

To move like you wish your teen would.

Or to enjoy and respect the role of sweets in the diet as you want your teen to do.

You instinctively know this already.

Be a good role model for your teen.

Model eating sweets in healthful ways – as part of your meal, in reasonable portions, and eating with attention and enjoyment.

Check In With Yourself

Are your teen’s eating habits triggering you? Causing stress and anxiety?

Let me release you from all this worry.

You’re not in charge of your teen’s eating.

You never have been.

The only thing you’ve ever been in charge of is the environment in which they live.

Your teen needs to learn to navigate all foods, including those with large amounts of sugar and empty calories.

While there may be more acne or extra weight gain as they learn to cut down on a high sugar intake, the fact is, they need to come to terms with their choices, and the consequences, and use their internal motivation to make any changes.

Also, know the difference between added sugar vs. naturally-occurring sugars. Natural sugars are A-OK! You can find the type of sugar on the food labels and ingredients listings on food packages.

Encourage Your Teen to Journal Their Thoughts and Feelings

Some teens are unaware of their eating tendencies. Some are not, and they’re bothered by the sense that they have no control over sweets and treats.

One way to increase awareness of triggers and food cravings is to keep a journal. Writing down the things that come up, the urges, thoughts, and triggers that prompt a desire to eat sugary food can help teens be ready for a variety of scenarios.

Your teen may figure out on their own through journaling that loneliness or boredom are triggers for desiring sweets. This self-awareness is the first step to managing cravings.

Practice Mindful Eating

Mindful eating is being fully present with all the senses during the process of eating. When one appreciates the sight, smell, taste, texture, and sound of food, it slows down the overall pace and helps your teen tune into their appetite.

Mindful eating is especially helpful when practiced with sweets. It’s a different experience when your teen mindfully eats a piece of chocolate rather than scarfs it down.

8 tips for the teen who can't stop eating sugar

Perspective From a Mom Who’s “Been There”

I have raised a few teens myself, and yes, it’s hard to watch them overeat sweet treats, or lay on the couch all day and not exercise.

I totally get it! It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of worrying about negative side effects.

But, I’ve also watched my teens get tired of feeling tired, or start to worry about the fact they can’t fit into their favorite jeans.

I’ve watched them make the connection to food or lack of exercise – and a high-sugar diet – as the main culprit, and proceed to make changes on their own.

This is critical.

When your teen can connect the dots and recognize problematic eating habits, he has the power to make changes.

Internally-motivated changes will be far more powerful and last longer than any external motivation you can offer.  

And when your teen can change himself, he’s reached a level of autonomy that is approaching adulthood.  

You see, your teen has to be internally motivated to make the eating changes you want to see.

They won’t do it because you want them to do it, but because they want to do it.

And that’s the road to self-sufficiency.

85+ Healthy Snacks for Teens!

Want More Help with Feeding Your Teen?

Check out our classes, workshops and guidebooks designed to help all parents nourish their kids, no matter their age or condition, inside and out.

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You may especially like The Eating Disorder Guide which will help you determine and navigate problematic eating in teens.

The Eating Disorder Guide by Jill Castle, MS, RDN
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