She was only three. She was two bites into her apple. She stopped. She looked at me with her big, inquiring eyes. “Mum, my apple is sweet.” I said “Yep”, and kept eating my apple. “Does it have sugar in it?” My heart broke. Someone had demonized sugar to my just out-of-nappies-innocent-as-anything little girl. I knew in that moment, no matter how well I mastered MY language around food, there would always be other influences on her attitudes to food and (…gulp) her body. Influences that I desperately wanted to keep at bay for as long as possible. I know the world can be cruel. And I was angry. Angry for the loss of innocence. Angry for the undermining I felt. Our newest generation are now being impacted by the “I Quit Sugar” movement.
The fear of sugar has become pervasive over the past few years due to some sensationalist and headline grabbing profit-makers. Yet, in my experience and in research, we know that fear, guilt and restriction of food has negative impacts on children. Yet, I am seeing these three things playing out infront of our sponge-like YOUNG children – FEAR, GUILT and RESTRICTION.
Concepts from the research
- Children will consume MORE of a restricted food when it is later on offer*.
- Children can self-regulate and be trusted to eat the calories they need** and interfering with this disrupts relationships with food and internal cues for satiety.
- Parents have an expectation that sugar changes their child’s behaviour*** (And guess what? This study cheekily told parents that their child had sugar when they hadn’t! The parents’ expectation that the sugar changed their child’s behaviour actually changed the PARENT’s behaviour.)
When being careful about sugar turns into FEAR
The aim of this article is not to ignore the overall benefit that the POPULATION would have if there was a reduction of sugar in the national diet. I am across this need. I instead want to focus on what happens when hyper-awareness of an ingredient turns into FEAR. Our community has a problem if someone is profiting from ingredient-fear and turning people’s food-relationship on its head. Fear of sugar becomes a problem on an individual level when they start to construct disordered views around eating it and providing it to others. Sugar is an ingredient. But fear of sugar has become dangerously normalised and anti-sugar messaging has become pervasive as our kids absorb this from a range of sources WAY TOO EARLY. We know that an child under the age of 11, has limited cognitive capacity to understand food at an ingredient level. So, the way the anti-sugar message forms in their brain is along the lines of “poison”, “bad” and “evil”. They understand fear. They take a message like this and relate it to themselves. I am BAD if I eat this lolly. I will get SICK if I have the cake at the party. I am EVIL if I have the ice cream with my grandpa. They completely miss out on the context of the messaging in the greater scheme of things.
To continue on this thought, I highly recommend this article Kelly from the Curious Nutritionist wrote about why she does not do “That Sugar Activity” in her health lessons at schools in Melbourne.
For me, one of the most disturbing images that came out of the I Quit Sugar content-factory was a hierarchy of FRUITS. Yep! When you say a banana isn’t an “everyday” food and promote blueberries and medjool dates as being acceptable for daily consumption, there is a problem. Fruit is something we need to promote to anyone and everyone. Role model eating fruits. Enjoy fruits. Make fruits available in a variety of ways. We should NEVER demonize ANY fruits. Plus, we don’t need to have such incorrect and economic discrimination in dietary messaging.
Fear leads to guilt
When a child is struggling with eating vegetables, proteins and mixed texture meals, there is enough guilt around missing nutrients from their diet. This guilt comes from our own inner narrative, social narrative, population-based dietary recommendations or by other people in our lives – read: 9 things NEVER to say to the parent of a picky eater. So, when we start to fear an ingredient in food, like sugar (or like “fat” in the 90’s) we find more guilt, especially if this is an ingredient that our child may be interested in actually eating.
In responsive feeding therapy, FOOD is FOOD. We introduce a range of foods for kids to investigate and learn about based on functional goals that the child is working on. For example, a meringue dissolves on contact with saliva which is perfect for children learning to bite. A marshmallow provides powdery feeling (building a child’s experience with that feeling). And then, with time in our hand, it becomes sticky (woohoo! MORE tactile sensory experience.) A marshmallow can also help a child use their front teeth (incisors) to bite into a food and pull at it. This engages their core muscles and teaches the mechanics of a chewing skill that is needed for more difficult foods. Chewing skills can be immature when a child’s diet is primarily beige in colour. In therapy we may use musk sticks to reduce oral sensitivity by counting our teeth with them.
I am not immune from sugar-guilt. I fleetingly feel guilty for offering children sugary foods in feeding therapy. I have seen the look on parents’ faces when I offer “unhealthy” foods. Yet, I know feeding therapy will not get anywhere if a child is not met where they are comfortable and provided opportunities to expand their food learning experiences.
What can you do instead of restrict sugar?
Even if your gut-feeling is to restrict sugar it is important to step back and reassess the reasons for your feelings as sugar can be a valid part of your family life and be part of your food values – ice cream by the beach, cake at nanna’s place on the weekend or custard tarts after school together at the park. By offering it as part of expected food opportunities, we can take sugar down from it’s glorious pedestal, we can see the children learn to self-regulate their intake and we can embrace our roles at mealtimes without guilt. (Another way to feel more at ease with offering sugar is to see how it impacts when it isn’t offered “as a treat” or with social cues that are tremendously for exiting for children – cues on their own that are a catalyst for excitability.) A parents role is to provide the food in a location at a set time. The child is then in control of whether and how much they eat. We need to provide children with food they can learn about without pressure, extra words or agenda.
“I would much rather see a child enjoy a lolly at a party with friends than to see them paralyzed with fear of the food table.”Simone Emery
Further health professionals to engage with
If my stance on bringing up children with a love of food in all it’s varieties without guilt appeals to you, check out these great accounts too:
Instagram Feeds to Follow:
- The Curious Nutritionist
- It’s Only Food
- Nutrition Guru and the Chef
- The Mindful Dietitian
- Natalia Stasenko
Facebook Groups / Pages or Posts You’ll Love:
- Parenting Picky Eaters (Facebook Group)
- Feeding Bytes (Pediatric Dietitian Natalia Stasenko’s Page)
- Choose Nutrition (Meg McClintock – Dietitian Page)
- HealthFull Nutrition (Relevant Post)
- Positive Parenting for Picky Eaters
My Parting Thought….
And if you ask me, I’d love to bring back the days of thinking of cookies without the sugar-guilt-cringe. We’d all be happier. What do you think?
*Jansen et al. 2007. Do not eat the red food!: Prohibition of snacks leads to their relatively higher consumption in children. Appetite. 49(3): 572-577.
**Birch LL and Fisher JO. 1997. Food intake regulation in children. Fat and sugar substitutes and intake. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 819:194-220
***Hoover DV and Milich R. 1994. Effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactions. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 22(4):501–515