My daughter was just 3 years old when I heard her say cupcakes have “too much sugar.” As a registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders, my hackles went up immediately knowing how dangerous “good” or “bad” food messages can be for children. She’d heard the phrase “too much sugar” from an intern helping out in her class who had no idea how harmful a simple phrase could become in a child’s mind. From well-meaning teachers and friends to cartoons, children hear the common, yet potentially dangerous, words all too often.
It makes sense that many parents and teachers are worried about their children’s intake with health concerns on the rise. But is it the sugar? Or could it be that in demonizing foods like sweets we set ourselves up for overconsuming them, not trusting our own bodies, and becoming chronic dieters (which does negatively impact health). Experts warn that the little phrase “too much sugar” can quickly backfire and undermine a child’s innate self-regulation system (in addition to our own).
Lauren Anton, a certified eating disorder registered dietitian and mom, says that her 6-year-old son has also come home with confusing messages about “too much sugar.” She, like many parents and professionals trying to neutralize dichotomous messages around food, told her son that “bodies actually use sugar (carbohydrates) as our main fuel source, and that fruit has sugar in it, along with many other foods. He was shocked!” Anton adds that current nutrition education lessons are “typically steeped in diet culture contributing to fat phobia, weight stigma, poor body image and disordered eating.” She suggests that early attempts at nutrition education are usually more confusing than helpful. “Allowing children to enjoy a wide variety of food and cultivate a spirit of joy with food and body is the best ‘nutrition education’ we can give them,” Anton says.
Nutrition expert and registered dietitian Crystal Karges, owner of Crystal Karges Nutrition in San Diego, agrees saying that “attaching negative messages to any foods can cause unnecessary guilt and shame around eating. Children have an innate ability to regulate what their bodies need to grow at a rate that is right for them.”
The messaging around sugar (and other ingredients) can lead to fear, confusion and overeating those foods. “Kids are getting all kinds of crazy mixed messages around food, and sugar in particular,” says Dr. Katja Rowell, coauthor of “Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating” and “Conquer Picky Eating for Teens and Adults.” Rowell shares a recent experience while watching a movie with her daughter and the heroine in the story has her heartbroken. “The first thing she does is slump on the couch with a carton of ice cream and a giant spoon! She jokes about eating the whole thing. Then the next show on the streaming service is about the evils of sugar.”
Rowell suggests that instead of saying the phrase “too much sugar” to kids, she prefers terms like “quick energy. Because, honestly, we do treat sugary foods differently.” Rowell sees a lot of young children struggling with sweets and believes it “is a result of approaching sweets with fear, shame and avoidance.” She suggests that “if you are trying to limit sugar and your child is struggling, then you may need to reevaluate your approach. For instance, a child from a no-sugar home came to our house and literally ate sugar from our sugar bowl. I hear stories like this from clients regularly. If a child is lying (beyond what is age-appropriate), sneaking, eating sugar or sweets frantically, or completely focused on them, the sweet has become too powerful.”
“As human beings it’s natural to want what we can’t have,” says Judith Matz, a licensed clinical social worker and author of “Amanda’s Big Dream” and “The Diet Survivor’s Handbook.” “As a parent, the more you make a big deal about ‘too much’ sugar, the more likely your child will want to get it when (he or she) can.” Instead, she suggests, along with serving a wide variety of nutritious foods, normalizing the pleasure of eating some cookies or ice cream. She recommends helping your child stay connected to his or her innate signals for hunger and fullness by using phrases like “your tummy is hungry now” when the child starts to eat and “your tummy is full” when he or she stops eating.
In my own practice working with parents and families, I recommend having dessert-like foods with meals or snacks. This means that no food or type of food is seen as taboo or offered as a reward. Dr. Rowell guides the parents in a similar way advising that “serving dessert with the regular meal and not having to eat x, y and z to earn dessert also dethrones the sweet stuff. If a child has to slog through veggies to get dessert, it actually teaches them to overvalue sweets and like the stuff we want them to eat even less.” Rowell reminds us that all children are different: “One child may be just fine choosing one sweet item a day and which meal they get to enjoy it. For another child, this can backfire and lead to preoccupation and sneaking.”
“We can teach our children nutrition through modeling, offering them meals and snacks with a variety of nutrient-rich foods, and regularly including desserts as part of meals and snacks without commentary on their nutrition,” says Anna M. Lutz, a registered dietitian and eating disorder expert at Sunny Side Up Nutrition, a nutrition coaching service with offices in North Carolina and Washington, D.C. Lutz tells the families she counsels that “children need to experience eating all different kinds of foods that they will come into contact with in the world, outside of our homes. These experiences at home will help them learn and grow and not give the food too much power.”
Our kids will continue to hear the phrase “too much sugar” and many other phrases that could be just as harmful, but we can help them learn to trust themselves in spite of it. Matz advises parents to support children in learning to trust their own bodies. “The truth is that eventually your child will become independent and make his or her own decisions about when, what and how much to eat,” she says. “Teaching him or her to be aware of what feels good or bad in their body — rather than labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — is a much more effective strategy for raising kids to have a positive relationship with food that will last a lifetime.”
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