Sugar is a big topic in my practice and generally a controversial nutrient; parents are concerned about their child’s sugar intake, tweens and teens often feel guilty eating sugar-rich food, but they also crave these foods and want to eat them. 

A closer look at sugar

“Sugar” is the broken-down form of carbohydrates. It’s found in grains, and fruit, dairy, and vegetables, along with the commonly expected food like candy, cookies, sweet cereal, and cake. The body uses carbohydrates, and sugar, as it’s preferred source of energy. Almost every system, organ, and cell in the body needs this broken down sugar to function. In fact, the brain alone, needs 120 grams per day1. And because the brain can’t store energy, it needs more every day! And that’s just the brain. To ensure the rest of the body also is energized, you still need more.

Sugar is a nutrient that provides easy to digest calories. This is good for adolescents who are growing and developing as they need a lot of calories to fuel their growth. Carbohydrates should make up a majority of adolescent’s diet- even up to 45% to 65% of total intake. (For illustrative purposes, a teen eating 2000 calories a day would require 225 to 325 grams per day. This amounts to about 6 slices of bread, or 7 cups pasta, or 20 Oreos, or 5 cups of rice).

Is sugar addictive?

It seems like sugar is always in the news to frighten parents anew. What’s the actual deal with sugar being addictive or bad for health?

Sugar activates the pleasure region of the brain with the release of the hormone dopamine. This is the same region that’s activated when people take drugs like cocaine. And there have been studies that demonstrate sugar’s addictive qualities. However, these studies (completed on rats), restricted access to food and sugar and then provided unlimited amounts of sugar. (That’s when these studies showed over-eating and addictive tendencies, which is conclusive with our knowledge that being restricted leads to overeating). When rats were provided reliable access to food and sugar their response was to eat enough of each to meet their basic caloric needs without developing sugar dependence. When regularly fed and given reliable access, sugar had the same effect on the brain as other pleasurable activities like being hugged2.

The research on sugar’s affect on our health seems to be inconclusive3, and really depends on one’s overall food intake. Which is another worry I hear.

How to approach sugar for adolescents & teens 

Parents are often concerned that adolescents won’t eat enough to meet their nutritional needs if they’re eating too much sugar-based foods. Though many of these foods have nutritional benefits beyond sugar (such as vitamin and mineral fortification, fat, or fibre, etc.), there are obviously food that provides more nutrients, and parents worry how to help their kids eat and enjoy those other foods, when all they want are sweets.

So, practically speaking,  how can you deal with sugar for kids and teens?

Sugar-rich food is a staple of childhood; parties, loot bags, school celebrations, slumber parties, etc. are all overflowing with sugary goodies. If you don’t allow your child to eat these food, two things can happen:

  1. They miss out on the social interaction and connection. Adolescents are social beings, though connections are often formed on superficial qualities. Not having the “right” snacks can get in the way of forming friendships. And food is social! Can you remember gabbing with your friends over a bag of jellybeans? What if you weren’t able to eat that candy; would the time together have been as enjoyable? Would you have been included or even wanted to be there?
  2. They feel restricted and end up overeating these foods when they have access. The body is incredible in that when it feels restricted, or feels it’s not getting enough energy, it’ll send urges to eat more (usually in the form of cravings), and once there is access, it’s difficult to stop eating, as the body doesn’t know when it will get this food again. This is why you’ll often see kids “out of control” at a party when they’ve only had limited access to a particular food until then. It’s not a sign to limit their intake even more, but rather to free it up. 

When kids and teens have steady and reliable access to sugar-rich food, they get used to the food, and can take or leave it depending on their current needs. For example, take my client Stacey (name has been changed). Her mom was very worried about the amount of food and particularly sweet food she eats, though she was trying to keep food neutral. When M&Ms were on sale, Mom bought all the kids their own packages to enjoy as they wanted. While at first Stacey ate a lot more M&Ms than her siblings, by the time she reached the end of her bag, she was sharing with her parents and putting away extra in the fridge. Once the excitement wore off, and Stacey could trust that she could eat as much as she wanted, she didn’t need to.

How can you do this?

Normalize eating sweets

Don’t keep these food as “treats” or only for special occasions. Serve them on a random Tuesday afternoon with snack. Demonstrate and model that sugar-containing food is just like any other food that can be enjoyed any time of day and day of the year.

Pair sweets with more nutritious foods

Combining foods allows adolescents the opportunity to fill up on nutritious food and fuel their development, while also eating the food they desire, and learning that no food is morally superior or more special.

(see this post on how to serve filling and balanced snacks that include these foods)

Make “sugar” obvious

While you don’t have to cut it out of everywhere- sugar makes all things tasty! – I like to limit the amount of sugar in unexpected places such as traditionally savory foods like chicken, meats, and vegetables. And have the “sugar” foods in obvious places, like cookies, cakes, and candy. I am not suggesting you clean out your sauce collection- those are super helpful for making quick and tasty dishes. I do encourage you though, to get comfortable with savory foods and different flavours. This keeps taste buds accustomed and able to enjoy all flavours, not just sweets. 

I saw a fantastic example of this on the Instagram account kids.food.exposure.dietitian. She suggested serving plain yogurt with fruit and candy. This allows kids to learn to enjoy the tart flavour of yogurt, while still having a sweet experience and associating sweet with fruit and candy- not yogurt. (And surprise! there’s actually less total added sugar in the yogurt/fruit/candy combo than sweetened yogurt.)  

Does this mean you always need to serve food this way? Of course not. If you want your children eating and enjoying a variety of foods and flavours, you need to expose them to that. This means serving strawberry yogurt & cucumbers one day, vanilla yogurt, peaches & PB toast another day, and plain yogurt with licorice a third day.

Sugar doesn’t have to be a concern. By neutralizing how you feel about sugar you can pass on the message and modeling that sugar is just like any other nutrient; eaten in variation with other food, and one of the many flavours of food that makes it tasty and satisfying.