3 Strategies for Making Peace with Sugar

The season of sweets is upon us! Halloween seems to open the floodgates for sweets, followed by all of the winter holidays and culminating with New Year’s Eve. It can be a challenge for kids & adults to find a healthy balance with the neverending supply of candies, cookies, and sweets that mark the holiday season. Here are 3 tips for navigating the season of sweets in a balanced way:

1. Neutralize Sugar

This concept might feel counterintuitive or even controversial for parents who are health-conscious and trying to minimize added sugar in their kids’ diets. Personally for me as a naturopathic doctor, this was a challenging concept to adopt with my own family until I understood how ‘demonizing’ sugar could backfire & lead to excessive sugar consumption.  

Neutralizing sugar means that we think and talk about sweets and sugar with our kids in an impartial way. We don’t refer to sweets as ‘bad’, ‘junk food’, ‘unhealthy’ etc. One reason for this is that attaching negative labels to foods can create feelings of shame or guilt when we eat them. For some kids (and adults), this can lead to overconsuming sweets as a way to deal with the uncomfortable feelings of shame & guilt, which is how it can backfire. Feelings of guilt and shame about eating sweets can also lead to hiding food, hoarding food, and other forms of disordered eating. 

On the other hand, referring to sweets as ‘treats’ or using them as rewards can also elevate them to a preferred status over other foods & make them seem more special or coveted, so speaking more neutrally about these foods can help level the playing field with nutrient-dense foods. If you’re wondering how you should refer to sweets or sugar, just refer to the food by its name (candy, cookie, etc) & try to avoid extra adjectives or expressions that make it appear either worse than or superior to other foods.

2. Know Your Numbers

Taking a more neutral stance on sugar doesn’t mean completely ignoring it or having a limitless sugar free-for-all. Many parents are aware that consuming too much added sugar can increase the risk of various health issues including dental cavities, inflammation, & metabolic challenges. In addition, high intake of added sugar in children is linked to difficulties with focus and mood.  

So how much is too much when it comes to added sugar? The American Heart Association offers guidelines on daily added sugar limits by age as follows:

This chart is obviously not perfect & does not need to be followed rigidly. You might be wondering why the sugar limit is the same for children of various sizes (a 4 year old is much smaller than an 18 year old), and why sugar limits are the same for kids and adult women. Also for some families, especially those with multiple kids, the target of 0 sugar for kids under 2 years might not be realistic. However, these numbers do provide a good general baseline for understanding what moderation means with sugar. It can help you determine what you want available in your home on a regular basis.

The highest source of added sugar in modern diets comes from SSBs (sugar sweetened beverages) which include soda, sports drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, & sweetened coffee & tea beverages. Many of these beverages easily exceed the daily recommended limits for EVERYONE (men, women, & children) with just 1 serving!  Here are some examples of how much sugar is in common SSBs:

  • 12 oz can of Coke:  39 grams of sugar
  • 16 oz Grande Caramel Frappuccino Blended Beverage:  54 grams of sugar
  • 12 oz Grape Crush Slurpee:  50 grams of sugar
  • 20 oz Lemon Lime Gatorade:  34 grams of sugar 

3. Model & Teach Mindful Eating

Many of us were raised in the “clean your plate & get rewarded with dessert” generation. This approach to feeding kids can lead to several issues. It teaches them to continue eating past their point of fullness, which can impair their natural sense of satiety and their internal cues about when to stop eating. It also often leads to eating really fast to get to the dessert reward, which might cause digestive issues. In addition, as discussed above, it elevates dessert to a special status, making it seem more important than the other foods that were served.  

Mindful and intuitive eating strategies can help kids enjoy their food, digest it better, know when they are full, and cultivate a positive relationship with food. Here are some tips:

  • Avoid multitasking at mealtimes – remove distractions like screens, toys, and even books so your child can focus on eating.
  • Encourage chewing – some experts recommend up to 30 chews per bite, which might not be realistic for most kids, but start by having them notice how many times they chew. If it’s really low (just a couple of bites), encourage them to double it.
  • Engage the senses at mealtimes- slow down and enjoy the smell, sight, and texture of food. This will result in more enjoyment and better digestion.
  • Don’t require that kids eat everything that is on their plate. Encourage them to listen to their body’s signals that they are full.

If you’d like to learn more about mindful eating, here’s a brief news clip from this summer where I was interviewed about digestive tips.

Bringing it All Together

So what does it look like to have a neutral sugar stance while simultaneously trying to keep it in balance? As I mentioned earlier, this can feel contradictory in some ways! Here are some strategies for achieving a healthy balance:

  • Avoid having sugar sweetened beverages as staples at home. This will greatly decrease overall sugar intake.
  • Read and compare labels and choose foods with less added sugar per serving.
  • There are usually plenty of ‘opportunities’ to consume added sugar while away from home (parties, friend’s houses, sports events, etc), so try to keep regular meals at home lower in added sugar.
  • Try ordering sweetened beverages at coffee shops with half the sweetener – you and your kids might be surprised that they still taste great!
  • Allow some sweets & sugar as part of your kids diet and keep a neutral attitude about it. Don’t make a big deal about it or talk negatively about the food or how it affects them.
  • If sweets are a part of your diet, allow yourself to enjoy them with your kids and let them see you enjoying them.
  • Sometimes it’s okay to let your kids ‘over consume’ sweets and not set limits; this might be hard to watch, but it’s an important part of helping them learn how excessive sugar makes their body feel and learning to self-regulate.
  • This might sound radical, but you might experiment with serving a sweet along with a meal (rather than after it). Again, this serves to neutralize the excitement about the sweets; some studies show this approach can actually decrease overall sugar intake.

I’m wishing you and your families an easy transition with the time change, and a healthy start to the holiday season!

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