Sweet tooth

Encourage a balanced diet that has room for sweet treats

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When my son Dan was 10 years old, he once ate half a pan of brownies at a single sitting and washed it down with a can of pop. I swear I didn’t know about it until afterward!

Some kids just love sweet foods. In fact, says Lisa Duizer, professor of food science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, we’re all born with an preference for sweet flavours. How that changes, though, depends primarily on the experiences we have with foods as we grow. Basically, if you eat a lot of sugary foods, you’ll want more and more — although the desire will be stronger in some kids than others, and also seems to be affected by age.

“By age nine or 10, children have often formed some strong preferences,” Duizer says. And they are making more of their own choices about what they eat. They may have allowance to spend on snacks or have mastered the art of lunchroom trading to increase their stash of sugary treats.

If you have a preteen son, he’s more likely to crave sweets than girls the same age, according to a 2008 Danish study. The boys also liked stronger flavours in general — enjoying sour tastes, for example, as well as sweet ones.

But for either gender, a diet with too many sugary treats will contri-bute to obesity and related health problems, so keeping that sweet tooth in check is important.

A drastic “just say no to candy” declaration isn’t likely to be successful, though. “If I was trying to reduce a child’s love of sweet foods, I’d take a moderate, gradual approach,” suggests Duizer. Here are some strategies to try:

Reduce refined sugars According to research, refined sugars actually increase the desire for more sweet foods, but the natural sugars found in fruits don’t have the same effect. “Try replacing one serving of dessert or a cookie with an apple or another fruit that is naturally sweet,” Duizer says. “When your child is used to that, replace another.”

Avoid artificial sweeteners Even though these sweeteners may have zero calories, research shows they have the same effect as refined sugars when it comes to taste preferences. “While artificial sweeteners will give you fewer calories, they still increase the child’s desire for more sweet foods,” Duizer says.

Increase variety Duizer explains that often a child needs to try a new food five to 10 times at this age before it’s accepted. “Keep forcing the new foods on them, in a nice way,” she says. Try the one-bite rule — requiring your child to try at least one bite of each item on her plate.

Don’t restrict completely Banning all sweets is likely to make them more desirable. Instead, try to help your child eat a balanced diet where there is room for some treats along with the healthier foods.

Don’t use sweet foods as rewards “Rewards and punishments don’t always work as we’d like,” Duizer says. Studies have found that when kids are offered a sweet food as a reward for eating vegetables, the desire for the sweet food increases and vegetables become even less liked. After all, kids might think: If our parents have to promise us cookies to get us to eat broccoli, how bad must that broccoli be?

If you’re still finding it a struggle to wean your child from his love of candy and cake, the Danish study has some encouraging information: By the time the children were 13 or 14, their love of very sweet flavours began to diminish. So keep offering those healthy choices and hope the approaching teen years mean your child’s palate will become a bit more sophisticated.

Reducing the desire for sweetness

Lisa Duizer, professor of food science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, says that gradually replacing refined sugars with fruit and other naturally sweet foods will help reduce the craving for sweets. Adding flavourful spices also can help distract your child from the reduced sweetness of the healthier treats:

Instead of a candy apple
Try an apple baked with a little cinnamon, nutmeg, butter and a touch of brown sugar

Instead of a chocolate bar
Try strawberries or bananas dipped in chocolate

Instead of a cookie
Try a graham cracker brushed with melted butter and sprinkled with coarse sugar and cinnamon

Instead of cake
Try a fruit crisp with minimal added sugar