A local nutritionist shares tips to getting your child to make healthier food choices and limit the amount of sugar in their diets and discusses refined sugar versus unrefined sugar, as well as the benefits of having natural sugars as part of your diet.
Are you living with a little sugar beast? Does your child incessantly beg for the sweet stuff, to a degree that is both mystifying and worrisome? Whether your kids have grown accustomed to downing too much sugar at home, at day care (it happens!), or school (it happens!), it’s never too late to revisit healthy eating habits. When my son was just turning 6 years old, he went through a candy-begging phase. I found myself caving in to his sweet tooth just to get our nightly routine sewn up without the whining and begging that exhausted me. In other words, I didn’t know what to do! I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with a kid getting a treat once a day, but what happens when everything turns into a negotiation around sugar?
We interviewed Rachel Meltzer Warren, M.S., R.D., a New York-area based nutritionist about how to incorporate sugar into your kids’ lives in a healthy and balanced way. What follows is a conversation that just might help you tame your sugar beast.
For the kids who are accustomed to consuming far too much sugar, what would your advice be to parents to help gradually reduce it? Obviously, switching sugary drinks to non-sugary drinks will have a huge impact, but how about on the food front?
Parents of young children often forget that they are in charge when it comes to food. Moms and dads are the gatekeepers. The foods that you stock your kitchen with are the foods that your children will be most likely to eat. One of the first things you can do to break a young child of a sugar habit is to cut down on the amount of sugary food you’re buying. Instead, stock your kitchen with healthier foods that your kids love—fresh grapes, edamame, frozen mango pops—and put the emphasis on what you want them to eat rather than what you’re discouraging them from eating. If you do buy cookies and cakes, keep them out of your child’s sight. Not that they can never eat them, but kids (and adults) are much more likely to favor the foods they see rather than the ones they have to search for. You can stack the odds in favor of healthy eating by keeping a fruit basket on the kitchen table instead of a candy dish. When your kids choose healthier foods, engage them in discussions about how strong and energized healthy food makes us feel. Remind them that sugary foods like cookies are okay to eat sometimes, but too much of them makes us feel not so good.
Is there a sizable health difference in consuming refined sugars versus unrefined sugars?
I have a few points to make on this. The natural sugar found in fruit is very different than the white (refined) sugar you’ll find in cookies and ice cream. Natural sugar comes packaged with fiber, which slows down how quickly your body digests the sugar, and an array of good-for-you vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. White sugar has none of those things. Fruit is a terrific and healthy way to satisfy your child’s sweet tooth.
Unrefined sugars such as honey, molasses, and maple syrup are a touch better for you than refined sugar—but you still need to make sure your child doesn’t overdo them. Most unrefined sugars contain disease-fighting antioxidants, and some have other health-boosting properties (honey, for instance, can be used as a cough suppressant). However, even unrefined sugars are a significant source of calories, and can lead to the same blood sugar swings as refined sugars that can leave your child cranky and tired.
In your opinion, are sugar substitutes such as Splenda safe for kids?
If your child gets in the habit of washing down meals with diet lemonade or fruit punch, he or she is getting accustomed to that super-sweet flavor and will come to expect it. As a result, he or she may need even more sweetness to feel satisfied, and may avoid unsweetened beverages that will taste ‘boring’ in comparison. Instead of fueling your child’s sweet tooth by pouring artificially sweetened drinks, make water the default drink and sugared beverages something to be enjoyed on special occasions. Even better, make your own unsweetened drink, like lemonade, and have your child add his or her own sugar—he or she will use a lot less than comes in packaged versions, and will learn to regulate his or her own sweet tooth. And if you keep sweet drinks to an “every once in a while” status, there’s no reason to give your child artificial sweeteners to save a few calories.
Rachel Aydt is a freelance writer, journalism teacher at NYC’s The New School, and frequent contributor to NYMetroParents. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and son.
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