What about sugar?

This is a common question that I hear during my weaning workshops and on the playground.


Sugar is the most recent macronutrient to be blamed for modern day diseases.  Yes, having an excess of sugar and refined carbohydrates in your diet can contribute to ill health and disease, but blaming it to the extent of avoiding it all together doesn’t support good feeding or nutrition.  Why is that I hear you say?  Primarily because restricting it can make it more desirable and does not teach the child to self-regulate their own intake.


Peoples approach to allowing their children sugary foods is personal and dependant on their own beliefs, upbringing and their own consumption.  It will also be dependent on the child, as children can vary widely in their love for sugar and some parents will find regulating their child’s intake of sugar harder than other.  For this reason, a focus on reducing added or free sugars in all foods and a balanced diet is a win for all children. 


For those that are most interested in the sweet stuff it is important to choose the best way to manage their intake.  There are two way to restrict their intake overt and covert restriction.

  • Overt restriction is when a child can see the food, but is told they cannot eat it.  For example, keeping it in the cupboard, but not allowing them to have any or having a sugary drink yourself, but not allowing them to try it.  This method often makes the food more desirable and tends to lead to overeating when they do get access to it.  It may also lead to them being secretive about eating sugary foods.

  • Covert restriction when you don’t have sweet foods in the house and don’t consume them yourself is believed to be the most effective way to limit your child’s intake without causing an increase in their desire for these foods. 


I recommend covert restriction in my weaning workshops.  I suggest that for as long as possible children are offered foods low in added sugar e.g. plain yoghurt, don’t offer juice or squash, choose nourishing snacks not biscuits or cake.  It is once a child grows and becomes exposed to more social situations like birthday parties, or if they have older siblings, when it can become difficult to restrict their intake this way.


Once a child has been exposed to higher sugar foods they will often show a preference for these and reject other previously eaten foods, especially as this often coincides with the more picky phase of toddlers.  It is at this time that overt restriction can really cause a problem and continuing to offer a variety of other foods at mealtimes is key.  Giving the child choice can help, for example, would you like this yoghurt (one with added sugar in) for lunchtime or as your snack.  This way they are getting something with some added sugar that offers good nutrition in terms of calcium and protein, but they are also getting an alternative to a more sugary food for snack.


Wouldn’t it be best if we all just stopped eating it I hear you ask?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I really enjoy some high sugar foods.  For example, I love to bake cakes.  I don’t bake them all that often (maybe once a month) and when I do I eat moderate portions, look after my teeth and I eat plenty of high fibre carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats every day.  I also factor it into my days intake, so I don’t have cake and a sugary pudding after dinner on the same day.  I see no reason for me personally to stop eating these foods all together.  Likewise, unless you come to me with a particular health complaint or concern over your diet I would not advise you that you must exclude them all together.  Adults are the same as children, often the more we restrict the more we want!  As I said at the beginning, sugar alone is not responsible for ill health.  It would have to be eaten in significant quantities with other contributing factors such as poor overall diet, lack of exercise, alcohol consumption, smoking, living in a polluted environment, old age, poor immunity, the list goes on…health is complex!


Here are my tips for offering the sweet stuff.

o   Offer sweet foods alongside savoury or as a pudding at mealtimes

o   Don’t use sugary foods as a reward

o   Enjoy sweet foods as a family as part of an activity together e.g. a bike ride followed by a visit to a café

o   Bake together.  Baking can be a great way to get children into the kitchen and enjoying the results as part of the next snack or meal that is due allows the food to be a normal part of the family life

o   Don’t label foods good or bad or put too much pressure on children to eat at mealtimes, this can also backfire and make them what the higher sugar stuff more.

o   Model good eating habits

o   Don’t keep lots of sugary foods in the house, for example:

o   Buy low sugar breakfast cereals

o   Offer water or milk as a drink, not juice or squash

o   Buy biscuits or cake as an occasional treat, but don’t keep a supply in the cupboard permanently

o   If your child is given sweet foods from a friend or school and it isn’t a time you would want them to be eating sugar, suggest saving them for a time when they might enjoy them e.g. after football or as dessert

o   If they are frequently given sugary foods by someone outside of the home speak to that person or people and ask that they stop offering them or only offer them once a week, but don’t let your child hear as they may interpret this as overt restriction

o   Stock up on nutritious snacks so that they always have an alternative

o   When offering sugary foods, demonstrate a portion, with everyone being served rather than helping themselves.

o   Teach children that some foods aren’t appropriate to eat instead of a meal e.g. “we don’t eat biscuits for breakfast” and lead by example.

o   Advertising – children will frequently choose foods marketed towards them e.g. sugary cereals with Disney characters on the front.  In this instance, don’t give them the choice of choosing the cereals when out shopping, give them another job to do.

o   School meal puddings.  The school food standards allow a small serving of a sweet dessert after lunch e.g. a cake, biscuit or dessert.  These desserts are often a reduced sugar recipe.  I don’t particularly like that this is part of the standards, I would rather see fruit and yoghurt as the daily choice with another dessert offered perhaps once a week. However, school meals are not just about the foods served. They teach children valuable lessons about eating in social situations. The free meals are the best food that some children will be offered in the week. The meals emphasise that all foods are important and that a balanced diet contains foods from all food groups.  Often eating meals together at school can be the reason that children start being more adventurous and trying new foods which they see their friends eating. Focus on the eating environment and language around meals is equally important to teach healthy eating habits as the choice of foods served.


The good news is that although children are born with a preference for sweet foods (as breastmilk is naturally sweet and we mimic this with formula) a study by Coldwel, Oswald and Reed in 2010 showed that children may outgrow their preference for sweet foods during adolescence, at the time when their growth is slowing. 


Ruth Harvey