How to get Kids to eat Less Sugar

Teaching kids to eat healthy

Teaching stubborn kids to eat healthy

All the parents I’ve come to know are fiercely protective of their children.  They would do anything for them.  At birth, our one hope is that our child is healthy.  But for some reason, when it comes to nutrition, most of us feed them garbage.

I'll be the first to admit that I did.  I thought we ate "healthy", but atleast half of the food we consumed was refined, filled with chemicals, fake colour, and stripped of all goodness.   I fed them dessert for breakfast (cereal and packaged oatmeal), nitrate and sodium lunches (sandwiches), snacks that were 30-40% refined sugar (granola bars), and after all that, I made desserts full of sugar, as a “treat”.  

So, why is it that most of us wonderful, good parents, fail when it comes to something as basic as our child’s nutrition?  Is it our own love affair with sugar?  Do we put too much trust in the agencies that regulate food?  Could it be our selfish need for convenience?

All I know is that it certainly isn’t for a lack of love.  Many times it was love that made us want to shower our children with treats, appease the picky eater, and provide that sweet comfort food for our families.

So besides our own shortcomings, why is it so challenging to raise healthy eaters?

Greedy Manufacturers

In 2007, the Kaiser Family Foundation released the largest study ever done on children and advertising.  (pdf link here) The statistics are sobering.

  • Tweens and Teens see 17-21 food ads per day.  That’s 7600 food ads per year!
  • 50% of all ads featured during children’s shows are for food.
  • 34% of food ads were for candy and snacks, 29% for cereal, 10% for beverages, 10% for fast food.
  • Nearly one in five food ads makes a health claim.  42% of all cereal ads include a health claim.  The most frequent health claim in food ads is: “provides essential nutrients”.
  • Of the 8,854 food ads reviewed in the study, not one ad was for fruits or vegetables.

The study states: “Because children 8–12 watch so much television, and therefore see so many food ads, they may be the group most affected by food marketing....they have more time away from their parents, have their own money, and have more opportunity to make their own food choices.”

Kids are also bombarded by “diet” ads targeted at adults.   A Canadian study (Can Med Assoc J 2004;165:547-52) found that 27% of 12 to 18-year-old girls, had distorted eating attitudes and behaviors.  They see  “dietitians” endorsing all sorts of empty low-calorie foods, and find a delusional “Health Check” logo on processed food void of nutrition.

Just the other day my son tried to convince me that a cereal was “healthy”, because it had the health check on it.  No wonder people and children are so confused about nutrition today.

The point is, if you’re not teaching your kids about nutrition, then you’re letting the greedy manufacturers do it for you.

Kids have a really hard time relating to consequences.

Does your child like to build rickety bike ramps, climb on top of rotten sheds (yes, that's Sugar-Loving Teen pictured above), and blow things up in small spaces?  Welcome to my life.  Sugar-Loving Teen has no fear.  He has a hard time making the connection between what he eats today and how it will affect him later.

Trust and innocence

Parents and children might not believe that big companies today could ever be allowed to sell products that could hurt or kill you.  Yet companies are getting away with murder.  They make products which are legal (under a certain limit), yet over time, and with repeated daily exposure, they are surely harming our health.

Little sugar addicts

Sugar is in everything!  Sugar is used to cover up the taste of high sodium, preservatives, and chemicals.  Our cereal and snack bars are laden with sugar.  We’re drowning our kids in chocolate milk, juice, and pop.  Add to that our daily dessert habit and we’ve got ourselves a society of sugar addicts….starting as young as 2 years old.

So what's a parent to do?

Breaking the sugar cycle!

I have two beautiful teenagers that I love fiercely and giving up sugar and processed food was never their choice.  I sprung this on them at 13 and 17 years old.  My teenagers are very different, so I had to go about doing this in two completely different ways.  One just needed a little reasoning and a little bribery and the other.... well I'm still working on that one.

Here are my suggestions for teaching your kids to eat healthy?

1.  Set a good example.

Don’t expect your child to eat healthy if you’re not.  Stop dieting.  Make permanent healthy choices.

2.  Don’t eliminate foods – Substitute!

If the thought of giving up sugar is traumatic for an adult, imagine what’s it’s like for a child or teenager.  A few weeks before even talking about making changes, start replacing unhealthy foods/treats with low-sugar baked goods.  Build confidence and proof that this is doable. Once you start hearing “this is actually good”, they might be ready for a change.

Another fear teens might have, is that everything will be so complicated or inconvenient now.  Show them that there are better options for packaged foods, like cereal (here) and snack bars (here) that they can just grab and go.

3.  Don’t target one child specifically.

Making a child feel like your putting them on a diet can cause irreparable damage to their body image and self-esteem.  Eating healthy is actually not your child’s issue.  It’s a parental issue.

There’s an excellent article written by Dr. Yoni Freedhoffhere).  He says:

There have been a number of studies now that demonstrate treating the parents can help the child (Golan, 2004, Boutelle, 2012). That’s why I’ll regularly recommend that, to treat individual cases of childhood obesity, we should be treating their parents and not the children. What I teach the parents in my practice is to live the lives they want their children to live, and to never, ever, put an emphasis on doing so for weight-related reasons (their own or their children’s). It’s about cultivating and nurturing healthy living behaviors — as regardless of a child’s weight, every family, including those with skinny little rails, can benefit from more family based cooking with whole, healthful ingredients, from active parents who carve out fitness time for themselves and their families, from less screen time and from more warmth. Those healthy living behaviors apply to every weight”.

4.  Focus on one thing.

Ask your family members to join you in a 30 day challenge.  Give up sugar for just one week. Allow 5 grams of added sugar per day for the next three.

Then focus on getting rid of most processed foods.

5.  Offer Social Support.

Kids face different challenges than adults.  Going to a friend’s house or a restaurant can feel overwhelming.
  • Talk about possible challenges beforehand.  
  • Send them with healthier chips and snacks to share, and just tell them to do their best.  
  • Go through menus ahead of time.  
  • Praise them and remind them of how far they’ve come.  
  • During the 30 day challenge keep the first week as stress free, and social event free, as possible.

6.  Googling

For some reason, children like getting their information from the internet rather than their parents.  I’ve found googling weird ingredients usually yields pretty accurate information.

Some kids might find it fascinating that many people regularly consume lighter fluid (TBHQ) in tiny quantities.  The problem is, people are consuming it on a daily basis and in a variety of foods.

Googling ingredients can help your child to see that most food manufacturers don’t care about your long-term health.

7.  Make it your non-negotiable conviction.

As long as your kids know that you’ll waver, they’ll complain or ask for things over and over again. Yet, when was the last time your child tried to convince you to buy them cigarettes?

8.  Be honest about your health

Most kids can’t understand what it’s like to feel your body falling apart, be obese, and connect that to what they’re eating today.  For the child who just “doesn’t care”, then it’s time to get real.  Explain how much pain bad eating habits or obesity has caused you or others.

Do they want you being in pain?  Will they support you in feeling better or not?  What if you had a heart attack or cancer?  Would they support the family’s healthy eating then?  These are very touchy questions, but sometimes this type of reality check has to happen.

9.  If they need a little push, try a little bribery.

I’m really not a fan of bribing, but I knew that all Sugar-Free Teen needed was a little extra motivation.  I thought about what she loved and made her an offer….and she accepted.

10.  Be credible and use logic.

Don't be part of spreading sensational stories. Regardless of how you view unethical corporations make sure you can back your claims up with facts. Instead of saying "We're never eating there again!", reason with your child...if a huge corporation was willing to hide questionable ingredients in their menu items once, what will stop them from doing it again? Did they really care about your health?

Don’t just say that something is “bad” or “disgusting” (genetically modified food, food dyes, fast food, etc...) Teach them why and show them how common sense in needed when looking at how food is made.

11.  If you see a need…fill it.

When my kids became teenagers I expected them to make their own lunches.  Unfortunately, my son would often spend his own money buying fast food each day.  I realized I needed to make his lunches again.  Big healthy lunches with lots of variety.  It was a bit of a humbling thing for me to do, but in the end it was worth it to ensure he was getting proper nutrition.

12.  Pick your battles.

Eating clean whole foods is the most important goal. Don't expect perfection. Gently enforce your non-negotiables, and let them have a bit of control over the rest.

How Sugar-Free Teen & Sugar Loving Teen came to be...

Sugar-Free Teen did accept my challenge but it didn’t go easy.  Although, it only took six days for her to lose her sweet tooth, she complained about how “this sucks” for 3 straight weeks!

On Day 28, she walked into my room and told me “I get it now”.  She was noticing what the kids at school were eating for lunch, and she found herself "wanting to yell at them" feeling sorry for them.  Without me urging her on, she has chosen to eat low-sugar and healthy.  No further bribery needed.

Sugar Loving Teen still loves Sugar although his consumption has naturally gone down.   There are other moments of progress though.  Sometimes I catch him reading the ingredients list on a product or using our Sodastream instead of drinking pop.  And, even though I roll my eyes, my heart gleams when he tells me he loves what I made “even though it has no sugar in it” (like that’s a bad thing).

Most importantly, I have the satisfaction of knowing that during these formative years his body won't be filled with chemicals and GMO's. 

Let’s face it, you can’t win them all.  Some kids will always put instant gratification over long-term health.  The important thing is to do your best and stop arguing about it.   Hopefully your good example, exposure to good food, and time…will win them over.

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