Let The Kids Eat Sugar! (In Moderation)

By Karen Libber Fishbein, LCSW, and Samuel Libber, MD

Halloween is almost here, and candy is everywhere! My daughters (ages 6 and 8) are very much looking forward to celebrating the holiday after missing out last year due to COVID-19. Thinking about the sugar consumption that will follow this festive day may be overwhelming to some parents.

In this post, Samuel Libber, MD, and I hope to put your mind at ease. Dr. Libber is a pediatric endocrinologist with over forty years of experience. He is also my father and a fellow sugar lover.

Dr. Libber and I both believe that establishing healthy habits surrounding sugar intake is an important task that parents can take on.

Sugary treats are everywhere and equipping our children with realistic and healthy approaches to sugar consumption will benefit them throughout their lives.  

Part One: Karen’s Observations As A Mother

To start out, I will share my philosophy on sugar consumption in children. I believe that children who are typically developing (and don’t have medical issues that impact how sugar is metabolized) can benefit from being offered certain sugary treats. In my present-day home (with my children) and in my home growing up as a child, dessert is/was offered as a reward for consuming a healthy meal. A “healthy meal” is defined by a meal that includes  protein, fiber, whole grains, a calcium source, and fruits and/or vegetables.

As a result, my daughters consume sugar on a daily basis – and so did I when I was growing up.

Some folks and some fellow parents might wonder how this impacts my children.

Here are my  reflections:

–  First of all, sweets are not viewed as a forbidden fruit in our home. My daughters both understand the rules listed above and realize that as long as they adhere to mealtime standards, they will earn a sweet treat.

   We do monitor that the girls don’t go too far with their dessert treats. I believe that when kids are offered treats as a reward for healthy eating, they learn how to self-regulate their sugar consumption. Once my oldest daughter ate too many marshmallows after dinner and was sick to her stomach during the night.  Since that happened, she has never binged on sweets again. I truly think that learning the hard way was an effective means for her to gain a deeper understanding about her body.

– Secondly, I think that when children are offered sweets regularly, it reduces the “scarcity mindset”. If children know that dessert will be available to them, they are less likely to spend time worrying about when and how they are going to get some candy or a cookie.  They also may not feel the need to overeat  sweets when they receive them, since they know that there will be opportunities to partake in the near future.  Interestingly, when other children come over to play, I notice that kids whose parents strictly restrict sugar often go straight to our candy jar upon their arrival. Not only is it the first stop, but the experience often involves overeating. When my daughters come home from school or from other activities, heading straight to the candy jar is usually the last thing on their minds. They are more interested in playing outside with friends, playing with toys/games, or having time to decompress.

A final observation I have about children living in a sugar-friendly home is that they often model the adults around them. So, for example, I am a dessert lover, and since I was given sweets after healthy meals from a young age, I find that I know how to control the amount of sweets I eat as an adult and I am able to moderate my dessert intake. At mealtimes, my daughters observe me eating healthy, balanced meals, and they know that I will enjoy dessert right along with them after the meal is over. I believe this gives me more credibility in their minds and lets them know that I too understand the importance of eating healthy, while also enjoying the indulgence of dessert. I feel strongly that children who view their parents eating a variety of foods, and positively accepting their bodies will then be more likely to adopt this behavior in their adolescent and adult lives.

Many folks may wonder what this sugar consumption means in terms of my girls’ physical health. I will share that both of my daughters are in the average ranges of height/weight. Staying physically active is something that we value as a family. Both of my girls often run around and play outside with their friends, sometimes for hours at a time. Additionally, they swim, dance, go to the playground and take walks all around Philadelphia. We try to come up with fun, physically active activities on a regular basis.  This mindset is integrated in our day-to-day life just as much as having sweet treats is.

Part Two: Dr. Libber’s Perspective As A Pediatric Endocrinologist

One lesson that I’ve learned over the years is that there is tremendous variability in how interested kids are in sweets.   Some of this may be environmental, and some may be innate.  In any case, many kids are not at all motivated by sweet foods and are fine finishing their meals without desserts and steering clear of sweet snacks between meals.   But when kids do desire sugary foods, certain rules should prevail:   Snack foods between meals are best designed around fruits, vegetables and savory foods.  Desserts, if sweets are offered, should have carefully controlled portion sizes without visible offerings of “seconds”.  If children are still interested in further dessert items, those should center on fruits and not on baked goods, ice cream or high-calorie processed foods.  

Many of the challenges in the diets of American children may be averted at the “supermarket stage”.   If parents concentrate on buying healthy food such as fresh fruits and vegetables and avoid purchasing unhealthy or overly processed foods, choices stay available to the child but become more limited.  If the choices are apples with cinnamon and raisins versus chocolate chip cookies, many of today’s kids would likely go for the cookies.  However, if parents refrain from purchasing chocolate chip cookies and the choices boil down to sliced apples versus mandarin oranges versus banana slices with jimmies, kids are still presented with options.   Furthermore, any of the latter choices are healthier than the chocolate chip cookies. Another tip to cut back on sugar intake is to avoid juices, sodas and artificially sweetened drinks.

Health problems due to excess sugar are well-documented.   There are potential dental concerns, behavioral concerns, weight-gain concerns and later in life, concerns over the consequences of too high a caloric intake —high blood pressure, diabetes, blood lipid problems, heart disease and many more.

Childhood is a great time to start setting patterns that could last a lifetime and help to prevent a large variety of health challenges later in life. Remember the wise words of my daughter – portion control, plenty of outdoor play and avoidance of the “scarcity mindset” when it comes to dessert. It’s never too late – or too early – to get started!

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