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Curing a Sugar Junkie

My husband and I have failed as parents. It hasn't been a spectacular fall from grace--just a quick slide down a sugarcoated slope.

Our lives took a turn last Halloween, a day that marked our son's first expedition into the world of sweets. We should have known then that there would be no turning back. To his delight and our chagrin, our little Caped Crusader ingested more candy in one 24-hour period than he had in the previous 24 months. He went to sleep with a Tootsie Pop clutched in his sticky little mitt and woke up the next morning demanding another. Life hasn't been the same since.

Okay, I'm exaggerating slightly. But gone are the days when Sam chomped on steamed broccoli spears as if they were candy bars. This was a child who was meant to be a healthy eater. My husband and I prided ourselves on making our own baby food. No junk food passed his lips.

But on Halloween, we caved. Since then, not a day--no, not an hour--has gone by without his angling for a piece of cake, candy, or fruit leather. Sam can spot a crinkled ice-cream wrapper from ten yards away. If he's desperate enough, even a sugary multivitamin will do.

Our son is a pint-size addict, and he's bad-tempered when denied his fix. In the dog days of his "terrific" twos, he would collapse regularly into a writhing lump whenever we wouldn't give him a treat. He has since honed his technique and now goes at us with the tenacity and skill of a master labor negotiator.

How could we have let this happen? Quite simply, our resolve weakened under the constant strain of a determined toddler's demands. Battle-weary, we began asking ourselves, What's so wrong with a little sugar anyway? Why not let him eat cake?

Now that we have a sugar junkie on our hands, though, we've come to our senses. My husband and I are conducting our own child-friendly 12-step program to break Sam of his addiction. We've read everything we could find on helping kids develop healthy eating habits and are trying all the tactics the experts advise.

We're making some progress, but the battle isn't over yet. Sam still gets frequent cravings for cake. Just last week, he begged for some every day. We didn't give in--but he didn't give out.

He's still disgruntled whenever his craving is denied, whether it's just before dinner, in the checkout line at the grocery store, or--our personal favorite--the instant he wakes up.

Progress is slow and not quite as steady as we'd like. However, we're getting better at finding that elusive balance between total abstinence and total overload. This week, things seem to be going a bit better. We're not there yet--but we're taking it one day at a time.

Sugar contains empty calories

This simple carbohydrate is almost totally devoid of nutrients. It can take up room in small stomachs that would otherwise be occupied by healthier foods.

It's linked to obesity

Drinking soda can make kids overweight, according to a study published in the medical journal The Lancet. Researchers found that a child's odds of becoming obese increase 60 percent for each high-sugar soda consumed above the daily average, regardless of the amount he exercises, watches television, or even eats.

It can lead to heart disease

New studies have found that the less sugar and refined carbohydrates we eat, the lower our triglyceride levels--an even bigger risk factor for heart disease than cholesterol.

Sugar causes tooth decay

All carbohydrates, including sugar, have long been linked to tooth decay. Regular toothbrushing, especially after sweets, greatly reduces the risk.

How can you prevent your child from becoming addicted to sweets? Here's what the nutrition experts advise.

  • Wait to introduce sugary foods. It's natural for kids to crave sugar sooner or later. But it's wise to wait as long as you can before letting children sample sweets and treats. "Once kids hit the birthday-party circuit, it's tough to keep them away from sugar," says Franca Alphin, R.D., nutrition director at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina. "But there's no reason to spoon-feed ice cream to a baby before she even knows what it is."
  • Hold off on fruit. Alphin says that offering fruit to babies before other food groups may intensify an innate preference for sweet tastes, making it more difficult to tempt babies with grains, vegetables, and meats. So delay offering pureed fruit until you've introduced other foods.
  • Read labels. Become conscious of how much sugar is in the food you give your child, advises Kathleen Zelman, R.D., a nutritionist in Atlanta and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "What you bring into the house has a big impact on your child's preferences," she notes. To determine sugar content, read labels when shopping. If sugar is near the top of the list of ingredients, then the food is probably packed with it. Recognize other names for sugar, such as sucrose, corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, honey, and molasses.
  • Be a role model. It's up to you to do as you say when it comes to sweets. If you gorge every time cookies are in the house, you can't expect any different from your kids. If you drink sodas all day and stockpile candy, your kids will too. Showing off your own powers of self control and keeping the junk out of the pantry will go a long way to limiting your child's intake.
  • Avoid conflict. If your little one wakes up and demands a cookie for breakfast every morning like mine does, you too may be wondering how to achieve moderation. Joy Bauer, RD and author of The Idiot's Guide to Total Nutrition, recommends that parents give kids a bit of control over their choice of sweet and when to eat it (barring breakfast). If you are denying a chocolate sundae at seven in the morning, don't just say no without any elaboration, says Bauer. Explain instead that our bodies are like cars and they need gasoline to get where they want to go. Sweets alone won't provide the energy we need to keep going and growing. It's easier to stomach a "no" if you are given a valid reason.
  • Get creative. One way to gain control over sugar is to bake your own desserts and snacks. You can help mold your child's palate by reducing the amount of sugar in a sweet. You can cut the sugar by three quarters and nobody will be the wiser for it. You can also incorporate healthy foods into a sweet snack, Bauer suggests. Instead of a Hostess cupcake, for instance, "try offering strawberries and bananas with a squirt of whip cream or chocolate syrup, a fruity blender concoction, or peanut butter and all fruit sandwich on whole wheat toast."
  • Don't ban sugar completely. You know what they say about forbidden fruit--it's also true of Gummy Bears. Research suggests that restricting sugar completely can make kids want it more. If children are getting the nutrition they need over the course of the week, there's no reason they can't enjoy fun, sweet foods for dessert or a snack, says Connie R. Diekman, R.D., a Parents adviser. Just make sure it's a small part of a balanced diet.
  • Don't misuse sweets. Few parents refer to cooked carrots as a special treat for a job well done, and the same should go for a cookie. If it's just another part of their diet, kids will treat it as such. It's also unwise to bribe a child with sweets or to use them as a reward for an empty plate. By encouraging your child to eat everything on his plate, you will interfere with his natural instinct to determine when he's full. This can lead to overeating.
  • The road to redemption. What if you already have a kid who is hopelessly hooked on sweets? Don't beat yourself up, because we've all been there, I was told by my nutritionist panel. "My sister still reminds me that I fell off the wagon with my own kids and would sometimes resort to bribery with candy, which was totally against my principles," admitted Kathleen Zelman. It's never to late to reel it in, she told me, but you don't want to institute radical changes overnight. The impulse is often to go cold turkey but that won't work, says the panel. Instead of unlimited access to sweets, allow sweets only after lunch or dinner, suggests Franca Alphin. Cut the portions they have been getting in half.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the October 2002 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.