The Johnny Depp remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory delves into why Willy Wonka is so obsessed with chocolate. We discover that his parents wouldn’t let him eat any of the stuff growing up. This is why he decided to surround his entire home with chocolate.
In real life parents don’t always realize that how they feed their kids impacts whether children enjoy sweets and go on their merry way or obsess and want more. “Humans are genetically programmed to like sweet foods,” says Dr. Gary Beauchamp, researcher and director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “Sweets have an incredibly profound reinforcing quality.”
In the first post in the Managing Sweets Series, we touched on the real reason families have trouble controlling sweets — and now we are going to better define the problem.
Here are the 8 things that don’t help:
1. Put it in sight and say “no:” “Having food in sight but off limits drives kids crazy” says Jennifer Orlet Fisher, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Public Health at Temple University. “Caregivers need to decide what’s appropriate to bring in the house and how accessible they want to make it.”
Orlet Fisher’s research shows that kids with restricted access to palatable foods like sweets, tend to eat more when given the chance. When kids feel restricted this creates what feeding expert Ellyn Satter calls “scarcity” so they obsess and eat more whenever they can.
2. Provide unlimited access to sweets: While Beauchamp admits there is no research showing that too many sweets in childhood affects preferences later in life, you don’t want to go to the other extreme and allow kids to grab sweets whenever they want.
This is because sweets foods are easy to like and energy dense. If a large proportion of kids’ diet comes from these foods, it lessens the chance they will eat and learn to like other nutritious foods.
“I wish my parents taught me more about moderation,” says Amy, a blogger at Second City Randomness. “Aside from soda (our special Friday night treat), we had access to everything in the house.”
3. Make them clean their plates: Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, was surprised with the results of his study showing that kids who are forced to clean their plates, eat twice as much dessert than kids not expected to wipe their plates clean.
Wansink admits this study forever changed his approach to feeding his three girls. Even though parents rarely ask kids to finish their sweets, the habit of making kids eat more food than they want increases the likelihood they will do the same for all kinds of food, including sweets.
4. Give sweets all the attention: Studies also show the attention we give sweets, both negative and positive, can create more desire. For example, a parent might act more excited when their kids get ice cream. “It’s ice cream time!” The same goes for calling sweets bad or unhealthy or worse, taking them away as punishment. A kid comes wandering in to kitchen asking for sweets and the parent replies,” you already ate too much junk today, enough already!”
This constant denial of sweets, makes eating a game of “I’ll get more and show you!” Wansink tries reverse psychology with his kids by providing fruit for dessert. He and his wife create a lot of excitement for fruit by saying, “It’s cantaloupe for dessert….yeah!”
5. Always reward with sweets: This has been said before but it bears repeating. When we use sweet food as a reward, it increases kids’ desire for it. It sends the message that the good healthy food is punishment for the best part of the meal – dessert.
Sweets are also used as a reward for going to the potty, doing well in school and celebrations. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying sweets, and having them at celebrations, you want to make sure children don’t learn to always associate sweets with rewarding themselves.
6. Use sweets for emotional hardships (parent and child): It’s not easy watching our kids experience difficult feelings. It’s just so easy to offer the cookie for the scraped knee or the lollipop following shots at the doctor. While once and a while this is fine, too much of this can create an association that sweets make bad feelings go away.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, demonstrates how kids can learn this behavior from their parents. Mothers who used food to regulate emotions, had preschoolers who ate more cookies and chocolate in the absence of hunger.
7. Declare a sugar free household: Beauchamp tells the story of a child who was not allowed any sweets at home — ever! The kid got around this rule by picking old gum off shoes and desks and eating it.
Orlet Fisher says she “never advocates parents eliminating sweet foods.” While there may be some instances where a sweet-free child will turn out fine, many will rebel and not be prepared to handle the real world, which is full of sweets.
8. Be controlling with how much: It’s party time and a parent gives her child a cookie saying “You can just have one.” This lets the child know from the get-go that she’s limited and can’t have more even if she wants to.
“It’s important for parents not to restrict their kids to 2 cookies, but let them know they can have more if they are hungry for it.” Says Katie Mulligan, pediatric dietitian from Rhode Island. “If their children are eating a healthy diet at home, parents don’t have to embarrass kids in public by restricting their intake of treats and kids can enjoy those treats until they are full.”
We may not be able to change the innate preference our kids have for sweets but we can help level the playing food – and make sweets just something else they eat at certain times. This will help them grow up better able to manage sweets in their diet.
Our next post will provide real-life case studies of families who have found the right balance when it comes to offering sweets.
Tanofsky-Kraff M, Haynos AF, Kottler LA, Yanovski SZ, Yanovski JA. Laboratory-based studies of eating among children and adolescents. Curr Nutr Food Sci. 2007;3(1):55-74
Wansink B, Payne C, Werle C. Consequences of belonging to the “clean plate club.” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 2008 Oct;162(10):994-5.
Blissett J, Haycraft E, Farrow C. Inducing preschool children’s emotional eating: relations with parental feeding practices. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Aug;92(2):359-65.