Taming the Sweet (and Junk Food) Tooth

By Jean Antonello, RN, BSN, obesity and eating disorders specialist and author of The Great Big Diet Lie, How to Become Naturally Thin® by Eating More, Breaking Out of Food Jail and Naturally Thin® Kids,

Some parents say their kids simply can’t do without sweets because their cravings are so strong. Their kids prefer sweets so much of the time; these parents are convinced that there is something about sweets and junk food their children need. They could be right. Children and adolescents who don’t get enough quality calories on a regular basis develop an adaptive need for fat-producing foods. This is why they crave them. Fat-producing foods are typically high in sugar and/or fat and are designed to efficiently produce extra fat to protect these reckless eaters from starvation. Remember, cravings are correlated to physiological needs. Kids who want candy and chips and ice cream frequently may have good reason—they aren’t eating enough good stuff. So, the remedy for the sweet tooth is simple. Feed hungry kids often with the best quality food and keep them satisfied.

When kids’ hunger is too strong, they are more likely to want sweets or junk food. These foods are easier to digest and the fuel gets right into the bloodstream. This relieves hunger pangs fast, but the relief may be short lived because these foods (sweets in particular) can burn up fast too. So, in an emergency, it’s OK to offer very hungry kids sweets, such as a cookie or small candy bar, but obtain real food ASAP so they get what their bodies really need—plenty of nutrients too. Remember to keep the emergencies to a minimum by carrying good quality food with you, in your purse or in the car, and anticipate your kids’ fuel needs away from home.

If kids ask for sweets or poor-quality food when real food is available, you have decisions to make. Your choice should be based on each kid’s eating pattern and regular diet quality. For example, a kid who eats good quality food most of the time and does not often get overly hungry will not suffer ill effects from occasional indulgences. But other kids need guidance and support in making better choices consistently. These are the kids who prefer borderline and pleasure foods as a rule. Adults can help these kids learn to satisfy their sweet tooth without sacrificing good nutrition.

Eleven-year-old Jesse begs his mother to get him an ice cream sundae on their way home from hockey practice. Mom knows Jesse had a candy bar after school, before practice. He didn’t touch the sandwich she’d packed for a snack.

“I know you’re starving, Jess, but you need better quality food after the workout you just had,” she says. “How about peanut butter and jelly on toast, and some hot chocolate?”

“Mom, I really want a sundae! Please?”

“Not today. It’s important to stick with good food. And remember, you’re an athlete,” she responds.

“OK. The coach said something about eating right. Maybe it’ll help me score!”

Always try substituting a richer real food—one with higher fat or some sugar— for a blatantly sweet food when you can. This has two positive effects. In the long run, kids’ food quality will be better; less low-class food, more nutrient-rich food. And as you help kids adjust their food choices towards higher quality foods, they are learning how to do this for themselves.

Where do parents and caregivers start in order to feed their kids better? First, take an honest look at how you’re feeding them now. Jot down on a piece of paper what and when and where your kids ate today. Then look at yesterday and think back to the day before. If you’re not sure where, when, or what they ate, ask them. Then add up the proportion of high-quality food to sweets and junk foods, and see how you’re doing.

There’s probably room for improvement, right? Here’s where you start.

Food availability at home

Look in your refrigerator, freezer, and cupboards for foods that qualify as real quality real foods kids like? Not much? Then make a list. Then ask your kids about their preferences. Some questions might be:

  1. What foods do you like that are high quality “real” food? Explain that “real foods” are simply typical meal foods that are high in nutrient value and lower in fats and sugars.
  2. What real foods would you like to have ready to eat when you come home from school?
  3. What are your favorite fruits? Vegetables?
  4. Do you want fruit or vegetables cut up? With dip?
  5. Do you prefer peanut butter toast or bagels with cream cheese?
  6. What fruit juices are your favorites?

If your kids are older, is there something they can microwave, such as a potpie or mini pizza? Who plans supper? Do meals at home need a little more thought in advance? Ask your kids for their input, and you may get some surprises.

Some families simply don’t have time to fix much of a dinner every night. But with even a little extra thought, meals can become better quality and less stressful to make. For example, most kids like spaghetti or other pasta dishes. It’s almost as easy to make two or more batches together, and the extra can be saved for the next night or the night after that. Other leftovers can be frozen for the future in individual servings. Then all that needs to be done on the subsequent spaghetti night is to add a quick veggie or salad and some garlic toast (in the toaster).

Even grilled or sautéed chicken breasts, pork chops, or steak can be doubled, half saved for another dinner and heated up in the microwave. Fresh steamed vegetables or frozen, (cooked in the microwave), provide quick and easy accompaniments. Prewashed greens turn into a healthy salad in two minutes, potatoes can be micro waved in a few minutes, white rice in fifteen. Be creative. Buy prepackaged stir-fry vegetables, and precut meats to save preparation time. The extra money is well worth it. Eating out is much more expensive. Rationalize any extra grocery spending you do with that reminder. Make fixing a decent meal for dinner as easy as possible, and you’ll find you’re making good dinners much more often. Lunches and breakfasts follow the same rules, but breakfast is especially tricky because of the workweek time crunch.

The solution to kids’ sweets cravings isn’t as complicated as it seems at first. Still, it can be challenging. Children and adolescents get used to having sweets and junk foods around and may protest loudly when parents first make changes. Don’t be discouraged. As their appetites are kept well satisfied with great food that they like, kids adjust. They may continue to request sweets and treats, but you may be surprised to find that they do so less frequently as they become accustomed to a steady diet of more nutritious food.

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