When teens can’t stop eating sugar, parents may worry about their eating habits and health. Understand why teens crave sugar, why they’re sneak eating and how you can help without making them bigger issues.
I often receive emails about children and teens who sneak food.
Stories of empty food wrappers discovered in closets or under beds leave parents feeling concerned and looking for help.
Or emails about how my teenager only eats junk food.
Parents wonder if they somehow caused these bad eating habits in their teenager.
Does their teenager have a sugar addiction?
A junk food addiction?
What should they do or say? Or should they not do or say anything?
It doesn’t really matter what the food is, or how old or young your child is, sneak eating and overeating is disturbing and concerning.
There is some research to inform us about sneak eating in children who carry extra weight.
Although weight may not be a problem with your teen, the study results give us something to think about.
A 2016 study in Appetite found that parents who monitored their child’s intake very carefully had kids who tended to eat more sweets.
Likewise, mothers who used psychological control such as pressure to eat and food restriction had kids who ate more snack foods in general.
“This study’s data suggest that children who perceive their mothers as using more coercive practices to reduce their overeating, or who perceive more psychological control from their mothers tend to eat more beyond satiety.”June Liang, study author
Is My Teenager Sneaking Sugar or Binge Eating?
It’s disconcerting to find out your child is participating in secret eating or sneaking food.
If that food tends to be sweets, then you may be worried that this behavior isn’t just about sugar, or an isolated incidence.
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.
The binge is typically accompanied by a sense that one cannot stop, and may be followed by shame, distress or guilt.
Typically, a person with binge eating disorder doesn’t use actions to correct the overeating, like vomiting.
Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the U.S.
If you suspect your teen has a problem with binge eating disorder, learn more here and talk with your healthcare professional.
Are You Making Dessert a Forbidden Food?
Some parents have an elevated concern about sweets and closely monitor their teen’s consumption habits, especially if they can’t stop eating sugar.
They may even fall into the ‘no sweets at all’ camp, eliminating every speck of sugar from the home.
They hope 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 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.
The Pleasure Response May Explain Why Your Teen is Eating Too Much Sugar
The pleasure response in the brain is turned on by highly palatable foods, such as those containing sugar, fat, and salt.
In other words, these food nutrients trigger feel-good brain chemicals, including dopamine.
Once children experience pleasure from eating certain foods, they may feel an urge to eat them again.
This can happen with sugar and sweets, and may be the underpinnings of what you’re seeing.
The more sweets a teen eats, the potential for increased pleasure and liking, and perhaps, strong cravings.
How to Help When Your Teen Can’t Stop Sneaking Food
Desserts, candy and sugary drinks are not going to disappear.
They’re prominent in your teen’s world and they will continue to be. While you may have the urge to control them, especially if it seems your teen can’t stop eating sweets, doing so may cause more problems.
And that’s no good.
Yet, I also know you probably don’t want to stand by, feeling helpless, watching your teen head down a path of unhealthy eating with the consequences that may arise.
Here are a few helpful things you can keep in mind:
Teach Your Teen the 90-10 Rule
Sweets and treats are fine to eat, but they should make up roughly 10% of the daily diet, on average.
In other words, most of what teens eat should be nutritious foods from the food groups (protein foods, grains, fruit, vegetables, and dairy (or fortified, non-dairy substitute).
Let your teen in on this reasonable and attainable food balance.
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 healthy, balanced diet.
Loosen the Reins On Sweets
It feels counter-intuitive to make sweets more available, but sometimes this is just what a child needs.
For teens, it can be reassuring that they are there, and not taboo, especially when it seems like they can’t stop eating sugar.
Regularly plan sweets into the week.
Make them predictable, such as homemade desserts on the weekend or ice cream with family movie night.
Don’t Shame or Blame Sugary Foods
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/bad food messages.
Save the lectures and the warnings of ill health 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 your teen 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 good reason to eat it, then!”
Promote Your Teen’s Autonomy
In the end, our job 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.
I remember saying to my own 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, she most likely is.
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?
Bothered by her sweet obsession?
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 he lives in.
Your teen needs to learn to navigate all foods.
While there may be more acne or extra weight gain as he learns, the fact is, he needs to come to terms with his choices, the consequences, and use his own internal motivation to make changes.
Also, know the difference between added sugar vs. natural sugar. Naturally-occurring sugars are A-OK!
Perspective From a Mom Who’s “Been There”
I have raised a few teens myself, and yes, it’s hard to watch them overeat sweets, or lay on the couch all day and not exercise.
I totally get it!
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 too many sweets – 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.
He won’t do it because you want him to do it, but because he wants to do it.
And that’s the road to self-sufficiency.
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You may especially like The Eating Disorder Guide which will help you determine and navigate problematic eating in teens.