What to do about Sugar?

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An interview with LeeAnn Smith Weintraub, MPH, RD

When my daughter first tasted ice cream at the age of one, I actually became afraid.  She devoured it so voraciously I was reminded of the plant in Little Shop of Horrors who first tasted blood and then required it daily to exist and thrive.  As a woman who had struggled with my own intake of “sometimes food” I also wondered how my own issues might rub off on her.    Messages about “bad foods” or “sweet treats” were still conflicted for me.  Is there really a “bad” food in moderation?  Why did it have to be called a “treat”?   What messages was I given and what would I be sending?  Is there a way to parent that might help our kids develop healthier relationships with sugar?  We turned to LeeAnn Smith Weintraub,  Registered Dietician and food and nutrition writer, to get some advice.  — Abbie Schiller, CEO & Founder, TMC

How can we help our kids develop a healthy relationship with sugar and make good choices about what they put in their bodies?

Actually, this depends on the age of the child.  For younger children it is up to the parents to offer healthy foods to children and they are not yet able to be responsible for their own food choices.  Children should learn to fill up on healthy food like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.  Sugary foods should be given only in in moderation.  Sugary foods should not be offered as a reward for good grades, good behavior etc. as this habit can create unhealthy relationships with sweets.  It is important that older children and teens that are making some food decisions on their own understand the basics of good nutrition and what foods their bodies require as fuel.  Sugar should be presented as “sometimes food” that fits into the diet only once the other food groups are met.

What are reasonable rules?  Once a day?  Once a week?  Or does restricting it create a greater desire and attachment?

I don’t like to use rules because every child and every family is different in terms of culture, family health history, weight issues, etc.  I think an important strategy is that if you don’t want your kids eating it, don’t keep it in the house.  Also, parents’ eating habits set a strong example of expectations when it comes to food because we know that kids will often eat what and how their parents eat.  Even when sweets and junk food are available parents should make it clear what a reasonable portion size looks like and if taking seconds is acceptable.If a child asks for dessert parents can offer two or three choices and let the child pick.  This gives the child some autonomy without the parent giving up control and responsibility.

What generally happens socially/emotionally for kids who are not allowed sugar at all?

This truly depends on the child.  Some children when not allowed to have sugar will seek it out and binge.  Other children may simply not be much interested in it.  I think that it is a misconception that children should be allowed sweets because otherwise they will crave it or feel deprived.  We see in cultures where sweet food is not as prevalent, like Japan and Chinachildren are not exposed to sweet tastes and both children and adults do not desire sweet foods.  A palate for sweet food is somewhat developed in our culture where sweets are common and widely consumed.

Sugar is often used as a “treat” or reward.  What are the consequences of framing it that way?

Basically, I think activities (movies, going to the park or zoo, baseball game, etc.) or attention from mom and dad should be used as awards, not food, not sweets.

Ultimately, how bad is it, really?  Especially during the holiday season, should moments of blissful indulgence be allowed?

I believe that it is not the foods that we eat on special occasion that shape our health, but the way we eat and exercise day to day that is most impactful. Food is an important and traditional way of celebrating the holidays.  Parents can offset some of the holiday excess by adding in extra physical activity and keeping an eye on portion sizes during this season.  If there is a holiday party tonight, stick with a healthy breakfast and small, balanced lunch before going off the deep end at dinnertime.

LeeAnn Smith Weintraub is a registered dietitian, nutrition consultant and food and nutrition writer. Her Los Angeles based private practice offers individual and family nutrition consulting. She is the author of The Everything Glycemic Index Cookbook (Adams Media, 2010), and is a contributing writer to the The Green Fork, the official blog of the “Eat Well Guide,” based on local, sustainable, organic eating.  She has contributed to KTLA, Cosmopolitan, Fitness Magazine, and US Weekly to name a few.  You can find her at

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