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Children and sugar: a frightening combo.

For Halloween they dress like vampires, pirates, zombies, and ghosts, but underneath the fake clothes exists a more frightening reality – our children’s growing dependence on sugar. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, kids under 12 consume 49 pounds of sugar per year, several pounds more than adults twice their size. The American Heart Association (AHA)  recommends that preschoolers receive no more than 4 teaspoons of added sugar per day. But a study conducted by the AHA found children as young as 1-3 years already bypass the daily recommendations, and typically consume around 12 teaspoons of sugar a day. By the time a child is 4-8 years old, their sugar consumption skyrockets to an average of 21 teaspoons a day.

It’s not difficult to see why children and sugar are best buds. Studies shows that newborns can detect sweet and will actually prefer sweeter solutions to less sweet ones. Scientists don’t really know why, but mother’s milk is sweet (naturally) and has a calming effect on babies. Biologically programmed to prefer sweet or not, the tastes of babies typically expand with age.

However, “Sugar overload may prevent their taste buds from maturing,” says Dr. David Ludwig.

The problem of children and sugar, according to Ludwig, is that foods marketed to kids are now super sweet so children often struggle to accept other flavors such as the taste of green vegetables, which they may find initially find to be bitter.

“Sugar is a powerful food additive because our bodies are hardwired to like sugar,” says anthropologist Solveig Brown, author of All On One Plate: Cultural Expectations on American Mothers.

Brown says sugar is “eight times more addictive than cocaine” and every one of our 10,000 taste buds have sugar receptors, which ultimately trigger the pleasure center in our brain.

“Food manufacturers employ scientists to figure out the ‘bliss point’ of sugar. In other words, what is the exact level of sweetness something needs to be to trigger the brain’s pleasure center.”

According to Brown, children in every culture innately like sugar and tend to have a higher bliss point for sugar than adults, which is why cereals targeted at children are sweeter than adult ones.

“Early childhood experiences shape our food preferences, which means that the average American child, who has a diet high in sugar, is learning that foods should taste sweet.”

Sugar Connects Children To A Lifetime Of Bad Health

Psychotherapist Valerie Kolick says excessive sugar in a child’s diet has long-term effects on the child’s future physical and mental health.

“A child who consumes large amounts of sugar in their childhood has a higher chance for diabetes, high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, and more as they age,” Kolick says.

Simply put, a plethora of studies show that sugar kills and has been linked to cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and heart disease.

Additionally, excess sugar weakens the immune system by creating an imbalance in the digestive tract between the good and bad microorganisms. If your children seem to always have runny noses, or other cold-like symptoms, this may be due to excess sugar, according to Pediatric otolaryngologist Dr. Julie Wei of Orlando, Florida. Kids diagnosed with allergies may actually be suffering from too much sugar, Wei says.

Children and Sugar = Bad Behavior

Many studies have shown that excessive sugar consumption by children can contribute to, and may even cause, attention deficit disorder (ADD), difficulty concentrating, tooth decay, obesity, and strange behavior in general. Sugar is quickly digested to glucose, the food of the brain, and in large amounts makes the neurons in the brain go haywire and causes children to manifest disruptive behavior.

Then there’s liver damage. About 13 percent of children suffer from nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). The disease is often characterized by a “sugar belly,” stomach fat that occurs when the liver detects more fructose than can be used by the body for energy.

The sugar train comes from all directions: birthday parties, school lunches, Slurpee-infested convenience stores, and well-meaning grandparents, friends, and neighbors.

Needless to say, Halloween doesn’t help, with children going door to door and begging for yet more sugar.

So what’s a responsible parent to do when forced to raise children in a sugary world?

Children and Sugar: Let’s Start With Halloween

Andrea Donsky, a registered holistic nutritionist (RHN), recommends parents simply say “no” to giving out candy to avoid a children and sugar alliance.

“Alternatives to Halloween candy include temporary tattoos, stickers, LED finger lights, or glow sticks, and mini packages of raisin, dried fruit, or pretzels.”

Sharon Vecchiarelli, certified health coach and healthy living educator owner, says there is no lawmaking participation in a traditional trick or treat Halloween mandatory.

“When you have little ones, it can be easier to have a Halloween gathering with some of their friends rather than taking them trick or treating,” says Vecchiarelli. “Make a deal with the other parents to bring a small Halloween-themed toy rather than candy to put in each child’s loot bag.”

As the child gets older and goes out trick or treating, Vecchiarelli recommends setting a candy ground rule before they go out.

“It can be as simple as having two pieces of candy when they get back and picking seven more pieces for the week ahead,” says Vecchiarelli. “The candy they keep stays in the loot bag in the kitchen or dining table – not their room.”

Freezing excess candy and doling out over a long period of time is also recommended. Parents are also encouraged by health experts to limit the trick or treating to a small area or only permit it for a specified amount of time.

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Children and Sugar: 5 More Tips For Sugar Downgrades

1. Fill ‘Em Up  — Children, like adults, are less likely to crave desserts and treats if they are filled up with all around nutritious food (not just non-sugar carbohydrates). Vecchiarelli recommends making sure your child has had something healthy to eat and does not arrive hungry at gramma’s house, soccer practice, or social events.

“Always having celery and carrot sticks with hummus or almond butter will help them feel satiated and energized, which will limit their sweets intake,” says Vecchiarelli.

Krysten Dornik, a food blogger specializing in allergy-friendly recipes, agrees.

“Keep your child filled with good foods like organic fruits, vegetables, some meats along with water to keep them from feeling the urge to eat sweets,” Dornik says.

2. Pack Lunches – Chris Brantner is the father of a 6-year-old and a 17-year-old. He says they both provide their own challenges when it comes to keeping them away from sugar.

“For little ones, it’s easier to control what they eat outside the home,” Brantner says. “The biggest thing you can do is pack their lunch. If you let them eat the school lunch, it’s highly likely they will end up getting the sugar whenever they can find it.”

Nutritionists recommend incorporating all the food groups into a packed lunch as well as getting kids involved in selecting and packing their own lunch.

3. Cook Together – In the belief that the family that cooks together eats less sugar together, Banter suggests planning healthy meals and having the kids help.

“Find healthy recipes with them and then cook together,” Brantner says. “If you can instill a love for cooking as opposed to a love for fast food, then you’ll be more successful.”

You can take it one step further and teach kids to help make their own healthy snack after dinner. For example, if they ask for ice cream, make something healthy like fresh strawberries on a graham cracker. Or instead of graham crackers you could use a custard pie shell and fill it with fruit.

4. Be A Role Model – Practice what you preach.

“Role modeling is essential to influence kids’ eating habits,” says registered dietician nutritionist Jennifer Glockner. “Show your kids that you love and prefer fruits, veggies, and a balanced diet.”

Psychologist Stacy Haynes says children, like adults, form habits. If candy is not in their daily routine, children don’t need it or crave it, according to Haynes.

“Many parents provide sweets all day in the lives of their children beginning with the breakfast Pop-Tart. The daily habits of families have to improve if children are going to improve.”

5. Make A Plan And Stick To It – Parents must be on the same page when dealing with children and sugar, says Kolick.

“It’s important that you have the conversation about children and sugar with grandparents, babysitters, friends parents, and anyone else who is raising the child. Talking to your children about how different foods make them grow and feel differently can be effective for even the very young.”

Jeff Campbell, father of two and martial arts teacher for children, says kids are much smarter than most parents give them credit for.

“I speak to my kids about sugar, processed foods, and diet in general,” says Campbell. “They know about the dangers of too much sugar and while that doesn’t make them not want it, it does make them think twice and they know it’s more of a special treat than a daily food item.”

Thomas RoppThomas Ropp Longtime journalist Thomas Ropp is an environmental advocate and proponent of living healthier. After spending most of his life in Arizona, he relocated to a Costa Rican rainforest ten years ago and helped with reforestation projects to expand the habitat of the endangered mono titi monkey. He has dual residency in the United States and Costa Rica.

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