This is Part 4 of a collection of posts used to write my book How to Raise a Mindful Eater
You serve dinner with all the food groups and your kids first reach for the pasta, bread, rice, tortillas or whatever carb source you have on the table. After a while, you remind them of the other food on their table or plate. Maybe you get so frustrated you simply instruct them to eat some protein or veggies.
Believe it or not, a child’s preference for carbs is a key barrier to teaching them moderation. Not because they like carbs but because parents don’t always understand the why behind children’s preferences, and may end up drawing the wrong conclusions.
Lately, my research has revealed some interesting facts about kids’ eating I think every parent needs to know. So similar to this post on picky eating, let’s hear it from the kid’s perspective.
1. The Cautious Carb Eater
When we go places where there’s food, I know you want me to eat the protein and veggies — and all those mixed dishes — but the sweet and starchy foods just feel like a safer place to start. I think I can get around to the other items but these are safe bets and they satisfy.
What’s behind it:
The most common explanation for children preferring sweet over bitter is that it signals a safe source of energy. According to this review:
A sweet taste in nature indicates energy, which is needed for optimal growth and development. Therefore, it would seem safe for the young to consume foods with a sweet taste. Breast milk is also sweet, and this would confirm the link between a sweet taste and safe energy.
The preference for sweetness seems to change with age according to research. In one study, school-age children (9-10 years), adolescents (14-16 years) and adults (20-25 years) were given a taste test with different sucrose concentrations. The school age children preferred higher sweet concentrations than the adolescents but the adolescents preferred higher sweet intensities than the adults. This is consistent with other studies that show that sweet preferences decline when growth is complete.
2.The Starch-is-a-Meal Kid
I know you look at me like I’m crazy when I’m perfectly content with eating bread at a meal or crackers at a snack sometimes. I don’t want to hear how I ate everything as a baby. My body and growth feel different now. I mean, eventually, I want to more food combinations but sometimes this plain old starchy food just hits the spot.
What’s behind it:
Researchers from Northwestern University set out to determine the energy costs of the brain from birth to adulthood. Using MRI and PET data, they discovered that glucose uptake by the brain doesn’t peak at birth as previously thought but during the slow period of growth between infancy and puberty. During this time the metabolic needs shift from the growth of the body to metabolic needs of the brain. For example, at birth, 35.4-38.7% of daily energy requirements go to brain-glucose uptake but this climbs to 43.3-43.8 during childhood.
The researchers believe that this period of delayed growth in childhood evolved so the unique human brain can fully develop, not so much in size but in key processes like synaptic growth. In order to do this, the brain relies heavily on glucose, which is why a child’s brain uses twice as much glucose as an adults brain does. As the graph shows, brain glucose requirements peak at about five years of age (almost half of the daily energy intake goes to the brain!), years before adult brain size is reached.
This adds additional evidence as to why preschoolers and young school-age children are drawn to starchy carbs like bread and crackers that readily provide glucose to the developing brain. I showcase what this type of eating looks like when Big A was four.
3. The Sweet-Loving Kid
I know you want me to stick to one or two cookies, but that’s really hard for me to do. Remember, I’m new to eating and I have a strong drive to eat them once I start. But I do get satisfied and am okay not eating them all the time. Just let me know when to expect them and we’re good.
What’s behind it:
In one study, children were given sweet drinks and then categorized into high sweet preference and low preference. These two groups did not differ in by age, body weight, stage of puberty, height or gender. Where they did differ is a measurement referred to NTx, a marker of bone growth that can be detected in urine. The results showed that the children that were still growing showed a heightened preference for sweets compared to those who had stopped growing (around 15-16).
The lead researcher of the study, Nancy Coldwell, was interviewed on NPR:
Exactly how this all works is still somewhat of a mystery, but Coldwell says that one important clue lies in the discovery that growing bones actually secrete hormones that can influence metabolism. Other well-known metabolic hormones like leptin and insulin have been shown to act on brain areas that control cravings and appetites, and even directly bind to the tongue, where they affect the preference for sweet tastes. Coldwell suspects that hormones from growing bones may be doing the same thing. In other words, it’s not your kid’s fault he raided the cookie jar – the hormones from his growing bones made him do it.
“I don’t know for sure, but I am very suspicious that the bones are somehow telling either the brain or the tongue that there is energy needed for their growth and signaling for that preference to increase,” said Coldwell.
This may explain why kids on low-carbohydrate ketogenic diets for seizures don’t grow as well as children on regular diets even when calorie intakes are similar.
How This Information Helps
Understanding carbohydrates play an important role in growth can be helpful, and even a relief, for some parents. Instead of assuming a child is addicted to carbs, we can understand their natural biological drive to eat them. In her study, Nancy Coldwell sums up what this means in terms of feeding:
This elegant link between taste preferences and biological need may leave modern children especially vulnerable to the long-term consequences of overeating and caries in the advent of abundant sugar supply. However, if we accept sugar liking as a natural concomitant to growth in childhood, then it brings into question the assumption that this propensity is invariably unhealthy and undesirable among this age group.
So once again, it’s that middle ground that is best. If we restrict too much, it can result in what researchers call eating in the absence of hunger. And when these cravings naturally decrease with age, those that were restricted may have forgotten how to listen to their body. But if we allow kids free reign with food choices, their diet will be imbalanced, often too high in sugar and refined carbs.
What can you do? Set the eating schedule and offer a good share of quality carbs like fruits, whole grains, dairy, and beans while offering sweets in a reasonable manner. Vary the food from meal to meal, but don’t interfere with the choices children make from what you offer.
The real key is understanding that moderation will look different for kids than it does for adults. This knowledge helps you stay consistent and prevents you from falling into the feeding traps that produce the opposite of moderation: extremes in eating.
Do you have a carb-loving kid? Tell me all about it in the comments.
How to Raise a Mindful Eater Post Series
1. Obstacles and Benefits to Raising Intuitive/Mindful Eaters
2. The Importance of Self-regulation and Stress Management
3. Myths About Food Addiction That Keep it Alive
4. The Real Reason Children Crave Carbs
5. The Power of Paying Attention at Meals [Next]
6. How to Build Your Child’s Self-Control Muscle
7. How to Keep the Weight-Obsessed Culture from Harming Your Child’s Relationship with Food
8. My New Book: How to Raise a Mindful Eater
Want this series plus more content, expert interviews, and stories? Check out How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food
Thanks for this post – it’s very informative. I’ve wondered about this for a long time – since teaching at a private school that had a militant anti-sugar policy, on the grounds that it made kids hyperactive. Personally, although I hear parents say that a lot, I’ve never observed it to be the case, with my kid or others.
I wonder if adults are projecting their own feelings on kids here. As an adult, too many carbs or sweets at once makes me feel off-balance or sometimes even dizzy, but from what I remember of childhood, I simply felt fueled and energized for active play. The data you assemble here is very intriguing and helpful in explaining why.
Another (admittedly anecdotal) data point: I’ve discussed toddler/preschooler eating habits with friends from other countries where adults eat an extremely healthy and varied diet that includes lots of fish, vegetables, etc., but they’ve said that in their countries, little children display the same preference for plain, bland carbs (e.g. white rice, plantains, fufu – a starchy yuca mash that’s a staple in West Africa – )that our children do here, and that their cultures see no problem with little kids eating that way. To me that suggests the preference is natural, and not just a product of how we feed our kids in America.
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
That’s interesting Anna. I think your’re right….parents often project their feelings about food onto their children. That’s why I like to write about why children have certain food preferences. Not so they can feed them sugar, but they realize there might be some wisdom to the food choices they make from what is served.
This is a great article! I have one daughter who naturally eats her protein, fruits and veggies first and another daughter who eats her carbs first and wants more bread, tortillas, etc before even touching the other things on her plate. She will usually eat her fruit and cherry tomatoes if those are on the menu. We’ve gotten into a habit of if she wants another piece of bread, etc telling her she needs to eat x bites of protein and veggies. I’m realizing this is setting her up to eat more than she normally would and isn’t the best approach. What would you recommend?
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
Cydni — I typically tell parents not to focus on what kids eat at any one meal. Young kids tend to focus on one or two foods at meals and as they get older this changes, especially if they are allowed to enjoy food they like because hey eventually tire of even their favorite foods. The key is to talk about the importance of eating a variety of food at times besides meals when everyone should enjoy their food. Then you want to vary what you serve at other meals and snacks. So maybe the afternoon snack is a fruit and veggie smoothie if those foods groups have been missing or protein and dairy, depending on how eating’s going. You want to look at how she eats over course of a week instead of individual meals. My book Fearless Feeding is a good resource on understanding children’s nutritional needs so you can relax come mealtime.
I was unawere of Brain Food! Hope this guide will be helpful for my child.