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Heavily restricting kids from sugar backfires.

The parenting space is full of differing opinions and approaches, and how to handle sugar with kids is certainly one of those tough topics.

Everyone approaches sugar and candy differently, and it’s quite the hot button issue in parent groups and various online forums. Our followers tell us that they are bombarded with messages about sugar being terrible, and they are made to feel like bad parents if they let their children have any.

Megan here. A few years ago I posted a cookie recipe on Instagram that has allergy-friendly modifications, something many of our allergy families were asking us to do. We were bombarded with strongly-worded messages from followers about how irresponsible it was to encourage followers to eat a cookie.

A cookie.

I don’t think they know me well enough yet…

Here's the thing. We know that sugar in large quantities is likely not amazing for our physical health, and yet heavily restricting sugar backfires. Plus, sweet foods are delicious and enjoyable, and they form many of the flavors - and memories - of childhood. How do we find a balance that works for us and helps our kids grow up with a healthy relationship to food? 

Remember, you get to decide what works for your family. As a good friend said to me lately, my job as a practitioner is to make the suggestion – your job is to make the decision. (Thank you to her Peloton for inspiring this quote!)

Perhaps after reading this you want to change how you approach sugar with your kids or wish you had done things differently. You are a good parent no matter what approach you have been taking, and you are allowed to change your mind and actions when you want to. We support you in doing whatever is best for your family.

Note: if your child has a medical condition that prevents them from eating certain foods, please check out the last portion of this post.

In case you’re short on time, here’s where we stand on sugar – head below for citations and explanations: 

  1. Sugar, in large quantities, is likely not health-promoting. We understand this. However, if we don’t teach our children how to manage their food environment, which will inevitably include birthday cake, soccer practice popsicles, cookies at school lunch and Halloween candy, we may be setting them up for failure once they have autonomy in their food choices. It’s our job to help them learn to listen to their bodies when it comes to eating the foods that will be available to them… including sugary foods. All foods fit. 
  2. Heavily restricting foods, per the literature, actually causes kids to want those foods more. So, in efforts to restrict or eliminate sugar, we drive them to obsess over it. 
  3. An "all or nothing" or very rigid approach to the healthfulness of food isn't actually healthy, it's disordered. There is room in our diet for foods that are less nutritive. Nutrition is important, but so are enjoyment and satisfaction. We can eat something just because it tastes good. When we miss out on satisfaction, we oftentimes eat more than our bodies need or are constantly searching for something else. 
  4. If we only ate foods based on what we knew about the nutrition they contained, our diets would probably be much different than they are right now. Our food choices are complicated and are influenced by many factors, including our desire to eat food that tastes amazing and satisfies cravings. There is nothing wrong with wanting to eat delicious foods. Yes, food is for sustenance, but it also represents celebration, culture, satisfaction, healing, comfort, and connection. Food brings us together. Savoring food that tastes good is one of life’s greatest joys, and it’s wonderful and fulfilling to share that with our kids.
  5. It’s important to have some structure around sugar – we aren’t implying that every time your kid sees a sucker you offer it to them (more below). We simply hope to open your eyes to the idea that if we make sugar a demon, we may cause more issues in the long run.

Where does sugar fear come from?

Everywhere you look, adults are trying to limit their intake of sugar. Sugar is the current “demon” that fat used to be. (Remember when we were advised to eat fat-free cookies, which were actually very high in sugar, because fat was “bad”?) Diets like Whole30 and the ketogenic diet have further exacerbated the public focus on sugar.

Many parents shun sugar because they fear that their child will become, or already is, fat. Perhaps they don’t want their children to become “addicted to sugar” like they are. Maybe they don’t want their kids to experience teasing or bullying for their size like they did. These are all valid fears – we are trying to protect our kids from getting hurt.

Given the current public discussion about sugar, it’s not surprising that many parents fear it and its role in their child’s diet. These fears may be deeply rooted in their own food and body image struggles or fat phobia. 

Note: the discussion of "overweight" in children is beyond the scope of this article, but we hope you will learn here that restriction in kids – especially with the intent to make them lose weight – can backfire. Children are meant to come in all shapes and sizes, and they deserve love, acceptance and tasty, nourishing foods, no matter how big or small they are. We highly recommend the book Fat Talk by Virginia Sole-Smith. 

As health practitioners, we absolutely understand that lots of sugar long-term may have detrimental health effects, including an increased risk of heart disease, fatty liver disease, inflammation and diabetes. 

Don’t get us wrong – we understand that eating a diet low in sugar can help us feel great, at least physically. Some of my clients have had dramatic health improvements by minimizing sugar when managing specific conditions. I have done therapeutic low-sugar diets for my own health issues. I totally understand how reducing how much sugar we eat can change how we feel, from both a professional and a personal level.

However, recommendations from major medical bodies talk about reducing – but not eliminating – sugar. It is generally recognized that sugar can have a place in our diet. Interestingly, some data suggests that both a very high intake and a very low intake of sugar are associated with poor health outcomes.

Recent recommendations from the American Heart Association state that children under the age of 2 should consume no added sugar. We will talk a lot more about this below.

There’s more to eating than nutrition.

Imagine a life where you could never eat your favorite ice cream or pie again. How does that feeling sit with you? Do you feel deprived? A little sad? Perhaps you’re not a “sweets” person yourself but can relate on another favorite food of yours. (I would be downright bummed if someone told me I couldn’t have chocolate or sushi again.)

Most people want to enjoy their favorite foods – including those that contain sugar – every so often. There’s nothing shameful or bad about this. We deserve to eat food that tastes good.

I work with a lot of chronic dieters and people recovering from disordered or restrictive eating, and we work on finding the “satisfaction factor” as described in Intuitive Eating.  Sometimes people rely so heavily on external rules surrounding food (what to eat, when to eat, don’t eat this, don’t eat after that time) that they miss their own innate signals of hunger, fullness and satisfaction. When they’re not satisfied by their meals they tend to seek out other foods, even if they’re physically full. Perhaps you relate – you eat a dinner that’s not tasty or filling to you, and thirty minutes later you’re raiding the cupboard for something else. You end up eating more in the long run – and food your body may not need – because you didn’t find that satisfaction factor.

Many of my clients have a piece of good-quality chocolate or some sweeter food every night as a way to connect with their taste buds, feel satisfied after dinner and cap off a day of eating. They are listening to not only their body but also their mind and their cravings. When they feel satisfied with food, they don’t think about it or worry about the next meal. They are satisfied and move along until the next eating time without obsessing over the next meal or what they did or didn’t eat. Enjoying sugar keeps them feeling sane, calm and content. It allows them to stop thinking about food so they can move onto living their life.

Remember, food is so much more than just the sum of its nutrients. We eat for many reasons besides just nutrition. Food represents culture, connecting with others, feeling cared for and safe. Food brings us back to specific memories or times in our lives. We are gifted with a sense of taste that helps us have enjoyable experiences when we eat. It is OK to love food and enjoy the eating process. Despite what our fitness-obsessed society suggests, there’s nothing wrong with liking to eat – we are literally hard-wired to do it. (It tastes good and makes us feel good for a reason, friend!)

What about our kids? Can’t we just not introduce them to sugar so they don’t know what they’re missing?

Here’s the tricky part: in order minimize sugar in their child's diet or avoid raising  a “sugar addict,” many parents heavily restrict sugar from their kids. Unfortunately, research suggests that this strategy actually backfires in the long-run. Kids are drawn to what they can’t have, and when they are heavily restricted from “forbidden” foods, they consume those foods in greater quantity as they get older.

As another study states, “Restricting access focuses children’s attention on restricted foods, while increasing their desire to obtain and consume those foods. Restricting children’s access to palatable foods is not an effective means of promoting moderate intake of palatable foods and may encourage the intake of foods that should be limited in the diet.”

Thus, in our efforts to restrict sugar, we drive our kids to eat more sugar. 

It makes sense, right? We as adults are wired the same way. When we’re craving a cookie and keep telling ourself that we can’t have the cookie, we eat everything else…and then five cookies. Then we feel uncomfortable (physically) and defeated (mentally). Perhaps we would have been better off just having the dang cookie – and really enjoying it – in the first place.

Furthermore, when adults eliminate sugar, it’s usually short-lived. Most adults eventually feel deprived if they can’t enjoy at least some of their favorite foods. In many people, restricting turns into binging or extreme disordered food behaviors. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve worked with who eat an entire carton of ice cream or sleeve of Oreos after being on a “no sugar diet” for a few days. Dr. Michelle May calls this the “eat, repent, repeat” cycle. We feel like we’ve eaten too much sugar so we restrict…which in turn causes us to eat too much sugar…and repeat.

The irony is, we really crave these foods because we enjoy the process of eating them. When we restrict and then eventually go overboard on them, we take away the joy and satisfaction from the experience…which is exactly what we were hoping to get from eating that food in the first place. We’re missing the entire point of eating it.

If we struggle mentally and emotionally with eliminating sugar, how can we expect it to work for our kids?

The solution? We need to find a balance that works for own families that includes introducing our kids to some sugar at a rate that feels comfortable to us. Keep reading for more on the “why,” and head to the last section of this post for the “how.”

Your child’s food choices will not always be under your control.

Many parents who heavily restrict sugar are able to fully control the foods their children have access to. However, as children get older, they can no longer regulate or monitor each bite. (And if you have taken our Toddler and Kid Course you know that stressing about each bite can be unproductive – a more authoritarian or controlling approach to food with kids causes mealtime strain for everyone.)

Eventually, your child will go to friends’ houses, sports practices, youth groups, trips with grandparents, to the movies, etc. They will be offered food you may not be comfortable with. They may have free access to foods they normally don’t see at home. It’s our job to help them learn to listen to their bodies when eating all types of foods – not just health-promoting ones – so that they can handle these scenarios.

Every time we post about sugar, we are bombarded with messages from followers about how they (or their friends) behaved around sweets when they finally had access to them after being heavily restricted at home. They tell us that they would binge on cookies, candy and baked goods when they went to a friend's house because they finally had access to these foods. A few followers told us that after being sugar-restricted during childhood, they went to college and “went crazy” on sugar for years to follow.

What concerns Judy and myself even more about heavily restricting sugar or any food is that authoritarian or controlling parenting styles around food are correlated with disordered eating behaviors. The more we carefully control what our kids eat, the more likely they are to develop what can be very dangerous eating patterns. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Ever since Feeding Littles started, our goal has been to help you learn practical strategies that can help you potentially prevent disordered eating, and managing sugar and sweets is a key part of these strategies.

In other words, by allowing your child to have some sugar now, we hope that you’re setting them up for a positive relationship with food for life. Taking the “special-ness” away from sugar allows it to be just another food in your child’s life – not something they obsess over. Food is just food. 

It’s ironic, no? To encourage kids to have a health-promoting intake of sugar over their lifetime, we have to let them have some sugar. 

There’s more to the story than “no sugar until age 2.”

In 2016 the American Heart Association released guidelines on sugar consumption for young children. These recommendations recommend no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar per day for kids ages 2-18 years of age.  This is equivalent to 2 tablespoons, 24 grams or 96 calories from sugar. These recommendations are not surprising and are actually pretty realistic for many families, especially if sweetened beverages are not part of your family’s diet.

However, what surprised many of us in the pediatric nutrition world was the recommendation for no added sugar in children under 2. Below are some of our thoughts on why absolutely no added sugar before age 2 is not realistic for many families:

  • If you use any processed foods, including pasta sauce, whole grain bread, and pre-made dinners – or if you go out to eat – it’s impossible to completely avoid added sugar. As a point of reference, most whole grain breads made with simple ingredients have 1-5 grams of added sugar per slice. It doesn’t make it “bad” for us – it helps bread taste palatable.
  • Avoidance of all added sugar may be realistic for a firstborn child or a child who isn’t around other kids often. However, younger siblings or kids at playdates quickly realize when their siblings or friends are eating birthday cake, and they usually want to join in the experience. (Parents of more than one child may tell you that they started sweets way earlier with their younger kids than their eldest one.) Many kids become aware of sweet foods sometime between age 1 and 2. 
  • Some parents simply want to expose their children to the same sweet foods they’re eating before age 2. They enjoy watching their young toddler learn about new flavors and experiencing traditional foods – like pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving or a relative’s famous cookies during a trip to their house. They believe that a small amount of any food can be part of a balanced diet.
  • Many people live in food deserts where access to a variety of wholesome, fresh food is not available. Those with very limited financial means may not be able to purchase only single-ingredient veggies, fruits, whole grain and protein foods that allow them to avoid serving any added sugar to their children. From a socioeconomic perspective, it may be insensitive to assume that eating food with no added sugar – food that the entire family is also eating – is possible for every family.

A few fellow dietitians and I have concluded that the “no added sugar until 2” guideline was made as an attempt to set the bar really high. Perhaps the intent is that while most families wouldn’t reach it, the guideline would call attention to excessive sugar in young toddlers’ diets. Some in our field take it very literally, but our stance is that we need to strike a balance with sugar so we don’t make it something “special” or “off-limits” while also supporting parents in feeding their families a balanced meal that everyone can eat.

Check out our specific recommendations for managing sugar below to decide when to first offer it to your child.

It’s about balance.

Just like many things in life, balance is important. When we have been working or playing too hard, we need rest. When our preschoolers have watched too much Paw Patrol, we send them outside for some fresh air. Sometimes our kids will eat more sugar; sometimes they won’t eat much at all. It’s important for us to teach our kids that “healthy” living doesn’t exist in extremes – it’s all about balancing what your body, your mind and your soul need.

A chocolate bar won’t “ruin” your diet, just like a salad won’t make you suddenly “healthy.” (Thank you to an Instagram follower for this analogy.) There’s room for a variety of foods in our diet. Yes, nourishing foods that fuel our bodies are important to help us feel our best – and we want to serve those foods to our kids often – but we have some wiggle room for “play” foods too.

Plus, isn’t part of childhood enjoying some ice cream on a hot summer day, eating a churro at a Disney park or excitedly anticipating donuts for breakfast on Saturday morning? I bet you have a lot of great memories surrounding sugary foods from your own childhood.

The more we strike a balance and see food as neutral and not “good or bad,” the more we can eat by how we feel and what our bodies actually need. Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, co-authors of Intuitive Eating, describe it as making peace with food and allowing yourself unconditional permission to eat. This sounds scary for people who have been on the diet rollercoaster their whole lives, but when done consistently, Intuitive Eating can provide people with a sense of peace about food. They’re not “in control,” they’re “in charge.”

How can you best manage sugar in your family? (Plus neutral language for talking about sugar.)

Remember, you will have to find the balance and structure that works best in your family. We’re making the suggestions – you need to make the decisions. 

  • Above all else, try to not make a big deal about sugar in your language. Avoid negative language about sugar around your kids. When you decide to serve it, just serve it. Remember, it’s just food.
  • Decide if your child is old enough for sweets. Some families wait until after 2, while others try it some time between 1 and 2. (Others try it earlier.) We’ve explained the recommendations and rationales above, and you need to figure out what feels best for you.
  • Decide how often you want to serve sweet foods like candy or desserts. Some parents do it with every dinner or more frequently; others do it a few times a week or even less often. When my kids were younger, dessert happened around 3 times a week and more frequently on vacations. Now that they're in elementary and middle school, we enjoy desserts together every night after dinner. If other children around us are eating something sweet and it’s offered to my kids, I let them try it too.
  • When you choose to serve a sweet food, don’t make it dependent on what your child ate that day or how they behaved at the meal. Try to keep food separate from behavior.
  • Serve the dessert without any caveats or discussions – just eat it and enjoy it! Eat it with them if you’d like; if you don’t want to, try to at least sit with them and enjoy something to drink. If they ask you why you aren’t eating it, try to avoid language like, “I can’t have that” or, “That will make me fat.” Stick to weight-neutral language like, “I don’t feel like that right now” or, “I’m not hungry for that.”
  • If you want, try serving the dessert with the meal as just another component. They don’t have to eat anything to get the dessert – they will likely eat it first, or at least try a bite of it.
  • We recommend experimenting with letting your child having their fill when you serve dessert. This may mean multiple servings of a dessert one night, or just a few bites another. See what they do. For families for which this feels uncomfortable, keeping it to one small portion may feel more doable at first. If you stay consistent with this, it’s amazing to watch them self-regulate.
  • Children (and adults) learn by their mistakes. If your child feels sick after eating too much sugar, it can be a practical learning lesson for them. Try not to take the “I-told-you-so” mentality and be gentle and understanding – we’ve all been there! Language like, “It doesn’t feel good when we eat more than our tummy needs, does it? Maybe next time you’ll be able to listen to your tummy a little more. We can work on it together.”
  • When your child asks for sugar when you’re not planning on serving it, try using phrases like, “We’re not having that right now. We’re having x instead,” or “Sometimes we eat that, and sometimes we don’t.” If they’re really insistent, they may be thirsty or hungry. Avoid, “Because it’s not healthy” or, “You ate too much sugar already” as a response to why you’re not serving it. This kind of language can make them want it more, as it paints sugary foods as the forbidden fruit.
  • Remember that it’s OK to like sweet foods – they taste good! There’s nothing wrong with your child enjoying them. Just because they like it doesn’t mean they will be sugar-obsessed or won’t like other foods, too.
  • Decide what you want to do regarding sugar-sweetened beverages. The research on sugar and negative health impacts is most strongly correlated with high intake of these beverages (soda, lemonade, etc). For many families, these aren’t part of their food environment – they drink water or milk as their primary beverages and enjoy sweet foods instead of sweet beverages. In our house, we serve only water and sometimes sparkling water. My kids get desserts and sweets otherwise and haven’t shown an interest in sweetened beverages. You'll have to decide what feels right to you.
  • Curious about Halloween and other holiday candy? Check out this blog post.

My kid is already “addicted to sugar.” What should I do?

First off, rest easy that while your child may be preoccupied with sugar, we have little evidence to prove that sugar is actually addictive. If you feel like your child is preoccupied with sugar, consider these strategies: 

  • Before you do anything, remind yourself that you are a great parent, period. You are allowed to change how your parent and do things differently. You didn’t “mess up” your kid, promise. You learned new information and are shifting to a new way of thinking. There’s nothing wrong with that.
  • Avoid using sugar as a reward or punishment. Try to see it as just another food. Avoid language about sugar being bad or that your kiddo eats too much – remember, humans want what we can’t have or what seems off limits. We’re trying to make it a non-issue.
  • Talk to your child about how you’re making changes if you haven’t been following these recommendations. Clarify that you trust their bodies to know how much to eat when you serve a food, and that while you will be choosing when we have dessert, they can eat as much as they want when it’s served. It sounds scary, but usually kids who seem obsessed with sugar are manifesting their sense of restriction.
  • Offer regular meals and snacks at regular times, and make sure they include some protein and a decent amount of fat. Sometimes kids seek fast energy foods when they're really hungry. Check out our Toddler and Kid Course for more help on meal planning and plating. The course also helps you promote successful mealtimes with particular eaters.
  • Be consistent with serving sweets at an interval that feels comfortable to you. When kids have predictable access to sweets they’re less likely to obsess over them. If you tell them you’re going to put chocolate in their lunch, follow through.

I have an issue with sugar as an adult. What should I do?

Many of us are freaked out about sugar with our kids because we have a complicated relationship with it ourselves. We may project our fears and diet mentality on our children. Given the messages we receive about food, diets and body size, it’s not surprising that we feel this way. You can still be a capable, impactful, positive parent about food if your own feelings about food are difficult or painful. Many, many adults feel this way thanks to diet culture.

If you struggle with insatiable sugar cravings or if you feel out of control around sugar, please consider reading Intuitive Eating and checking out their Workbook. It can be life changing, especially if you’re ready to be done with restrictive eating and dieting!  Sometimes talk therapy is indicated for those who feel like their eating world is out of control.

Keep in mind that you may crave sugar if you’re dehydrated or are not eating enough protein/fat in your diet. Try to increase your water intake and include more balanced foods in your diet. Protein and fat are macronutrients that can help stabilize your blood sugar and prevent those low blood sugar dips that lead to stronger cravings.

Note: I have noticed that many breastfeeding individuals have very strong sugar cravings that may be tied to dehydration. Make sure you’re drinking enough water if you’re breastfeeding!

What if my child has a medical need that limits the type of food they can eat?

Sometimes kids can’t have sugar foods (or other ingredients in the sweet food offered). Parents of kids with type 1 diabetes, allergies or other medical needs that require a special diet can find it hard to maneuver off-limit foods.

Try your best at keeping language positive around food and emphasizing that while some people’s bodies do OK with cake, their body is allergic to one of the ingredients so they will feel really yucky if they eat it. (Most kids with special diets figure out pretty quickly that they don’t do well when they eat offending foods.) Emphasize that you will always have safe and yummy alternatives available for your child and that they will always get enough to eat.

If possible, try to bring a safe alternative that your child can enjoy. Check out these cookies that we modified for common allergies, or head to Pinterest for some fun, tasty alternatives – search “allergen-friendly desserts.” If your child has diabetes or needs a very low carbohydrate diet, work with a pediatric dietitian on finding sweet-tasting alternatives that can help your child feel included in the experience of enjoying desserts but also fit their dietary needs.

You made it to the end! Thank you for sticking with us. We wish you joyous eating experiences with all foods – including sugary ones – and hope that this article has helped you find some peace in how you feed your kids.