The Scoop on Food

Why Your Kids Shouldn't Quit Sugar

A "sugar detox" may do your kids more harm than good.

little girl holding a lollipop Zoroyan/Shutterstock 
Everyone loves to hate sugar right now. It's the nutrition villain-of-the-moment, and everywhere I look there are stories of people who have gone cold turkey—and who not only lived to tell the tale but wax poetic about the newfound mental clarity and insist that life is so much better without sugar.

I've done my own experiment with quitting sugar, eliminating all added sugar (the kind put in by manufacturers, not the natural kind in fruit and dairy) for three weeks at a time. And indeed, some of what they say is true: I could suddenly taste the subtle, natural sweetness in food. Mental clarity? Not so much, though I wasn't plagued by cravings, which was freeing.

But though I enjoyed my sugar-free experiments, I didn't take my kids along for the ride—and frankly, I don't think you should either. Why? Because what you may view as an interesting exercise can feel like downright restriction to kids. That can lead to secretive eating and sneaking "forbidden" food, a troubling red flag I hear about more and more from my colleagues who counsel families.

I also don't like the idea of grown-ups inflicting their own ideas of "bad" foods or ingredients onto kids. Believe me, being a dietitian means I talk to my kids about nutrition. We have conversations about the foods that give us energy and nutrients and the ones that are more "occasional" foods, that don't supply much more than calories for our bodies. But I would never call sugar toxic, evil, bad, dangerous, or unhealthy—because I think we can all have some sugar in our lives and be healthy.

Having quit sugar myself on a few occasions, I also know that it's hard. You have to read every ingredient list. You have to stop eating some of your favorite foods. You have to turn down birthday cake at parties and dessert when you're a dinner guest. Social situations were truly the toughest part. I don't see the point in putting kids through that.

And for what? To prove something? To try and permanently rewire their taste buds? We're born with a predilection for sweet flavor. Stripping it entirely from the diet may temporarily dial down our preference for sweets but won't erase it completely.

Yes, it makes sense to cut back on sugar. And yes, most people (including kids) are getting too much. So here are some ways to trim added sugar without going to extremes:

  • Use a little bit of added sugar to sweeten already healthy foods, like plain yogurt and plain whole grain cereal. By sweetening plain foods yourself, you're likely using way less sugar than manufacturers put in.
  • Designate a couple of dessert nights each week when foods like ice cream and cookies are served. Finish the meal with fruit the other days of the week or no sweets at all. And on dessert nights, consider serving it with the meal (find out why).
  • Don't stock sugary drinks like soda and fruit punch, and consider those desserts as you would cookies or cake. Sugary drinks are the number-one source of added sugar in Americans' diets, and one of the easiest sources to cut.
  • Skip artificial sweeteners. They're much more intensely sweet than sugar, so they won't help at all if your goal is to adjust the palate to prefer a less sweet flavor.
  • Treat all added sugars equally. If you want to cut back on added sugar, that means cutting back on honey, molasses, and maple syrup too. They don't get a pass just because they are more "natural" than white sugar.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.