Sugar, spice, and all things nice | 5 min read

How do you, as a parent, navigate family gatherings, celebrations, and sweet treats that are given to your child? 

It can be tricky to manage if parents do not take a firm stance to understand and agree on the child’s sugar intake. Here are some tips for tackling your child’s behaviour and relationship with food.  

Tip #1:
Make an informed decision of when you would like to expose your baby or child to sugar, treats, and sweets, and make sure everyone understands the when and how.

Babies and children have a natural tendency to like sweetness. It is because they have been exposed to this taste from the swallowed amniotic fluid, in-uterine, and throughout the first few months of life being breast- and/or formula-fed. It is a survival mechanism to encourage milk intake for growth and development. 

The type of foods chosen to compliment milk feeds from the introduction of solids and throughout the first year of life is essential. These foods determine the development of an acquired taste for bitter, sour, and salt. 

Advised approach to sugar the first year of life (0-12 months):

  • Naturally occurring sugar in foods such as fruit, some vegetables, and dairy can be used to encourage acceptance of more challenging tasting foods. 
  • It is best to avoid added sugars such as high fructose corn syrup, agave, sugar, sucrose, coconut sugar, cane sugar, glucose, maltodextrin – to list only a few. These added sugars are primarily found in fruit juices, sauces, baked and processed foods. 

According to the South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the prevalence of overweight and obesity is 13.5% for children aged 6-14 years. It is higher than the global prevalence of 10% among school children. Although cultural influences and genetics play a role in developing overweight and obesity, the family mealtime practices and feeding style of a parent have also been found to impact the development of overweight and obesity in young childhood and teenage years. Whereas social and family structured mealtimes decrease the prevalence of overweight and obesity, restrictive feeding practices are associated with an increased risk. Restrictive feeding is the implementation of controlling and limiting food choices. Restriction may lead to preoccupation with ‘the forbidden fruit.

Do not make sugar and treats the enemy; instead, normalise these foods and give them a place and acceptance in your family’s mealtimes.

Restrictive feeding may lead to ‘eating in the absence of hunger. Responsive feeding encourages more awareness of satiety and hunger cues. Considering that sugary foods are energy-dense but largely lack in nutrient density, these foods should also be included consciously, not taking the place of nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, fruit, protein, fiber-rich grains, and healthy fats. Research also suggests that replacing sugar with alternatives such as Stevia and artificial sweeteners harms your child’s palate development, blood sugar level, and the gut microbiome.

When a toddler asks for a snack, sweet, or treat right before mealtime, suggest having it after or when appropriate. Let them choose ‘the what’ themselves to have after a meal.

Asking for a treat may indicate hunger and can pose a good teaching session and discussion with your child. “I realise you are hungry; the food is almost ready. Then, if you still feel like it, we can have a snack after lunch”. 

Advised approach to sugar the second year of life (12-24 months):

  • Allow sugar and sugar-containing food into your child’s balanced diet and meal or snack times.
  • Avoid/ limit sugar-containing beverages and dried fruit. 
  • Set boundaries, no restrictions.
  • Avoid sugar replacements and or artificial sweeteners. 
  • Avoid offering sugary food, treats, or sweets as a reward or negotiation to finish a meal. 

Adequate and balanced nutrition is essential for growth and development – brain function, immune system support, etc. Be careful to underestimate the effect of behaviour towards food that results in a relationship with food. It can make or break the efforts you put in from the introduction of solids to ensure a healthy relationship and balanced intake later in life.  

Food for thought: 

Next time you approach a type of food or mealtime, ask yourself: how do I (the parent) feel about it? Is this something I want to teach my child or rather something I would like to unlearn and change for my child’s relationship with food?  

N J van Rensburg RD(SA) & Co-Founder of Rooted Natural

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Faith MS, Kerns J.  Infant and child feeding practices and childhood overweight: the role of restriction.  Maternal and Child Nutrition. 2005, 1(3): 164-68.

Clark HR, Goyder E, Bissell P, Blank Lm Peters J. How do parents’ child-feeding behaviours influence child weight? Implications for childhood obesity policy. J Pub Health. 2007, 29(2): 132-41.  

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Ruiz-Ojeda FJ, Plaza-Díaz J, Sáez-Lara MJ, Gil A.  Effects of Sweeteners on the Gut Microbiota: A Review of Experimental Studies and Clinical Trials. Advances in Nutrition. 2019, 10(S1): S31–S48

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