Do you worry that your preschooler or toddler is eating too many sweets? If so, you’re not alone.
In a 2012 study looking at the consumption patterns of added sugar in youth from 2005 to 2008, researchers found the following:
- Males aged 2-5 years old were consuming 218 calories per day from added sugar.
- Females were consuming 195 calories per day from added sugar.
- Boys were eating more sweets than girls, and the types of sweets eaten were largely coming from food rather than drinks, such as soda or juice drinks.
- Sweets were mostly consumed at home.
Added sugar is found in desserts like cakes, cookies, and ice cream; in sweetened ready-to-eat breakfast cereals; in candy; in flavored yogurt; in granola bars; and in other foods. You can identify added sugar by reading the ingredients label on food. Any word that ends with –ose indicates added sugar (like sucrose and dextrose, for example). Other ingredients indicating added sugar include honey, syrup, agave, and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Natural sugars such as lactose (from milk) and fructose (from fruit) are not added to products but occur naturally; as such, they are not counted as added sugar and offer other nutritional benefits such as the presence of vitamins and minerals.
An undeniable preference
Kids are naturally drawn to sweets, so it isn’t their fault that they like them. Babies are born with a preference for sweets; amniotic fluid transfers a variety of flavors to baby—including sweet flavors—and breast milk is also sweet. These facts and the potential for eating sweets frequently in the first two years of life and beyond reinforce a kid’s natural preference for sweet flavors.
However, sweets shouldn’t be part of the regular diet at all early on, especially in the first two years of life. If you can hold off on introducing them, you’ll get a head start on helping your child develop preferences for healthier food. It’s okay for young ones to have birthday cake, but try to steer away from regular sweets in the first two years of life.
Policy, not policing sweets
How often will you let your little one have a sweet treat? Some parents are comfortable offering them every day, and others are not. The recommendation from the 2015 proposed Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) is to have no more than 10 percent of calories from added sugar each day; for the average-sized 3-year-old, this is no more than 130 calories per day from sweets; for the 4-year-old, no more than 150 calories per day. This is a very small amount, especially when you consider a brownie or a piece of cake can contain 250 calories, and a juice drink can contain 100 calories or more.
It’s important to find your comfort zone and create a policy for sweets, whether they are offered every day, weekends only, or on special occasions only. When deciding your policy, make sure to give consideration to the frequency of sweet offerings, the size of the portion, and the types of sweets your child can have. Ultimately, consider what you can support and uphold—mentally and emotionally—and what is good for the whole family.
Your child can get the sweet flavor he or she craves without overdosing on candy, soda, and desserts. How about a bowlful of fruit with a dollop of vanilla yogurt? Or a piece of peanut butter toast with a few chocolate chips perched on top? The point is, “dessert” doesn’t have to be drenched in sugar. Having a bowl of fresh or canned fruit at the end of the meal can be just as satisfying (and healthier) than a bowl of ice cream.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, September 2020
- Liking sweets is a physiologically-based preference from birth.
- Frequent exposure to sweets at a young age enhances and sustains a preference for sweet foods.
- A family policy for eating sweets allows them to have a place in your child’s diet without taking over.