How to Encourage Healthy Eating When Your Kid's Sweet Tooth is Hardwired From Birth

Health & Wellness on 09.30.11
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It's not just brattiness. Apparently the fact that my daughter asks for cookies everyday is because she is preconditioned to crave high amounts of sugar. New research shows that children crave sweeter foods more than adults and this begins from day one. Considering the fact that we rarely have cookies or sweets in our house, this new evidence has put the constant discussion on cake, cookies, and ice cream into perspective.

Studies have shown that kids prefer more intense sweet and salty flavors in their foods than adults and this does not change until adolescence. Julie Mennella of the Monell Chemical Senses Center has been conducting research on the subject and has found that sugar actually can lesson pain and is used in hospitals to relieve pain during simple procedures:

A reason for this may be that a preference for sweet, caloric substances during rapid growth may have given children as an evolutionary advantage when calories were scarce. That notion is supported by the fact that sugar doesn't just taste good to children -- it actually makes them feel good, too.

When I discovered this new research, my brown-rice mama instincts went into overdrive and I was tempted to erradicate all sugar from our home. But, I quickly came back down to planet Earth and decided I could not change biology or evolution.  Luckily, the research also determined that kids who have stopped growing (around ages 15-16) began to crave sugar less. Researchers suspect that growing bones secrete hormones that influence metabolism and make our rapidly growing kids crave the sugar.

It's not like we didn't have enough roadblocks to overcome when it comes to the battle with childhood obesity already! The fact that our children are programed to crave sugar for growth is not in our favor, but it does help explain why sweets are so craved - and sometimes an explanation can be great comfort to us hardworking parents (and nutritionists!).

So, as parents, how do we compete? It is still important to offer our kids a variety of foods including sweets - just to do so in moderation. I have outlined many tips in my article, Let Them Eat Cake: Responsible Tips for Dealing With Sweets.  And it's also important to offer plenty of fun, attractive, low-sugar alternatives to sweets - like replacing soda with coconut water - and at very least avoiding the most problematic. highly-processed sugars like high-fructose corn syrup.

We should not take the news that our kids are hardwired for sugar hits as a reason to give up on healthy eating. Nor should we see it as a reason to get extreme about banishing sugar from our homes. As with most nutrition research, this is just one more reminder that a truly healthy, balanced diet is based not on absolutes - but on an undestanding that our children need a wide variety of foods, and that the best we can do as parents is get them excited about eating all kinds of foods in reasonable doses - sweets included.

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