SUGAR and FAT.
People of all ages prefer this taste combination. Yeah, some people like sweeter foods and others prefer salty but as I learned in my training as a dietitian, the mixture of sugar and fat is one that is particularly pleasing to the palate.
Kids are naturally drawn to sweet foods that are energy-dense. And in a world where these items are literally everywhere, parents are left unsure how to deal with them.
The problem goes something like this: kids fight for these foods but their parents fight back trying to keep their intake as low as possible. Or, parents give in because they simply don’t have the energy to fight. Either way, the issue of how to manage sweets is one many families face.
In this series, we’ll dig deep into this topic of how to raise kids who have a healthy relationship with sweets – and grow up eating them in moderation. We’ll have expert interviews, case studies and specific strategies to get you and your family on the right track.
But first, we need to get to the heart of the problem. Not what everyone thinks is the problem, but the real problem.
The Problem – at face value
Everybody knows that Americans eat too many energy-dense foods. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Report, foods with added sugars and solid fats contribute almost 35% of calories in the typical American diet. This is true for people of all ages – children, adolescents, and adults.
Yet the Dietary Guidelines recommend 10% of total calories come from what they call “discretionary calories.” And that’s only if people meet their nutrient needs first. Ouch.
The bottom line: Many people are consuming high quantities of foods that offer little in the way of nourishment. These foods are not meant to make such a large contribution to the diet of younger — and older– bodies.
The problem and solution are typically defined as “these tempting foods need to be cut back or eliminated from the diet.” But the way we go about this can make the problem much, much worse.
Uncovering the Problem — it’s more than taste
When parents see their kids loving sweets they often get worried, especially if their kid is at a higher percentile for weight. This fear often drives them to cut back sweets in their child’s diet in ways that are counter-productive.
Researchers reviewed 22 studies in the 2004 issue of Obesity Research and found that that parental restriction was the only feeding strategy associated with increased eating and weight in kids.
Take a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition several years ago. When offered to eat as many energy-dense foods as they wanted, girls (aged 5 to 7) of parents who restrict them from palatable foods at home were more likely to eat in the absence of hunger than the unrestricted girls. Research also suggests that girls who eat in the absence of hunger tend to feel bad about themselves.
Studies also show that an indulgent or permissive feeding style, common in lower-income homes, is associated with excess eating and higher BMI. This is letting children eat what they want when they want and that includes plenty of energy-dense foods.
And how about how adults feed themselves? Many spend their time between trying to be good on a diet or healthy eating plan or eating what they want in larger quantities. Studies show most people who diet will gain their weight back plus more.
So children and adults just don’t only over-eat sweets because of taste. The way they are fed, or feed themselves, has a major impact on whether they obsess, overeat, or simply prefer energy-rich foods.
The REAL Problem
When I ask clients struggling with weight their biggest challenge they usually say something like “carbs,” “sweets” or “potatoes.” They fight hard to stay away from palatable foods because they think they have to.
This is the problem! Deep down no one wants to give up foods that are so highly preferred by their taste buds and that includes children. So people look for excuses to eat such foods whether it be stress, uncomfortable emotions, or celebration.
No one is taught how to eat sweets in a balanced way. In our society, we see food as black or white – good/bad, healthy/unhealthy. How many diets tell you to avoid bad foods? How many times do you hear someone say they were “bad” or “good” due to eating?
Yeah, we hear words like “moderation” or “occasionally” but what does that mean? Many fear that they can’t trust themselves around ice cream, cookies, or a big bowl of chips. And if they can’t trust themselves, how can they trust their children?
I believe our relationship with sweets is actually a learned behavior. Take a look at other cultures that make less of a big deal about indulgent foods (or drinking but that’s a whole other topic). They enjoy them without guilt and make them part of a well-balanced diet. Isn’t that what we want for our kids?
The answer to this dilemma lies somewhere in the middle of being too controlling or permissive when feeding our kids and ourselves. It’s learning to look at sweets in a whole new light.
Like my friend and pediatric dietitian Jill Castle once told me, “You want the kid who runs by the bowl of M&Ms without even noticing it.” Stick around for the series and I’ll help you raise a kid like that.
So tell me, what challenges does your family face when it comes to managing sweets?
Want a research-based guide on teaching kids how to eat sweets in moderation? Check out Maryann’s book, How to Raise a Mindful Eater