Does Your Child Have a Sweet Tooth?

Cutting back on sweets is a great decision for your health — but it can be hard to follow through, especially for kids. Almost all American kids eat way more sugar than is recommended, and hardly any of those kids actually want to reduce their sugar consumption. How can you tame your child’s sweet tooth?

The natural sweet tooth

Newborn babies like sweet tastes, and research shows that infants prefer sweets from birth. Breast milk tastes sweet. Sugar can even reduce pain for children.

A sweet tooth may be adaptive. Not only does it encourage babies to drink more milk, it could have helped our ancestors avoid poisonous plants. Natural poisons are generally bitter, while naturally sweet foods like fruits and vegetables are good to eat.

A sweet tooth could have been an advantage for early humans. Sweet foods like yams and berries were available some of the time. Super sweet foods like honey and sugar cane were available only occasionally. Getting too much sugar wasn’t a problem, because it simply wasn’t available.

Now, sugar is not only readily available, it’s hard to avoid. Apples and carrots are always available, along with other natural sugar sources like milk. Nearly every packaged food from the grocery store or prepared food from restaurants and cafeterias comes packed with added sugar, too.

The trained sweet tooth

If our natural sweet tooth caused us to choose carrots over broccoli when we picked a snack, it wouldn’t be a problem. A sweet tooth is a real problem because the amount of sugar consumed by all age groups, including kids, is on the rise. When your parents were kids, they probably thought of sweets as desserts or special treats. They learned not to eat sweets in the morning or before meals, because those choices were considered inappropriate in those days. They drank water rather than soda most of the time. Even the sweets they ate were often homemade, with less sugar than store-bought versions.

Kids now may drink soda for breakfast on a regular basis. They may regularly choose flavored sweetened milk rather than ordinary milk (which contains quite a bit of natural sugar already). Chances are good that almost all the celebrations and gatherings they attend include sweet treats and snacks.

Our kids grow so accustomed to super sweet foods that they may not be able to recognize the sweetness of peas, melon, or strawberries. Sugar releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine in the brain. Eating lots of sugar can cause our brains to develop a tolerance. We need a larger amount of sugar to get the same effects. Melon doesn’t feel like dessert if we have ice cream every day.

Taming the sweet tooth

While the jury is still out on whether sugar is physically addictive, there is evidence that “intermittent access” to sweets can lead to strong cravings. For some people, abstinence from sweet foods may be easier than moderation. But for kids, it’s almost impossible to avoid added sugars. Our kids get sweets not just at home, but also at friends’ homes, at school, at scout meetings and sports practice and at the bank where they hand out lollipops.

If sugar is out of bounds at home but available everywhere else they go, our children may be more likely to binge on sugar when they can get it.

Here are some steps you can take to cut back on sugar, even if someone in your family has a sweet tooth:

  • Choose products with less sugar when you’re shopping. You can probably cut back quite a bit on sugar in peanut butter, spaghetti sauce, salad dressings, and other things you don’t think of as sweets.
  • Try out healthier versions of recipes. Check out our healthier cookie recipe and high fiber snack cakes. Our Chocolate Nut Torte recipe (click the link and scroll down) may become a favorite, with much less sugar than the average cake mix cake.
  • Choose natural sweets like fruit when you can. Fruit at breakfast instead of sugary cereals or sponge cake with berries instead of snack cakes — changes like these can help you cut back on sugar.
  • Persist with gradual small changes over time. Your family’s tastes will change, and they’ll begin to enjoy less sugary treats.
  • Cut back on sodas and candy. It can be easier to give up one or two items than to give up sugar or sweets in general.