Sugar Cravings in Children

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Muesli or granola bars are sweet and nutritious.
Muesli or granola bars are sweet and nutritious. (Image: Rosemary Buffoni/iStock/Getty Images)

If you have a child who craves sugar, don’t shrug it off as just a phase. Food cravings can be stronger in children than adults, and a craving for sweets can actually become an addiction. Treat sugar cravings as an opportunity to teach about nutrition and to help your child develop a life-long habit of balanced, healthy eating.

Carbohydrates For Kids

You may be surprised to learn that children need the same amount of carbohydrates in their diets as adults. Sugars and starches are essential sources of energy, supporting a growing body, keeping the brain alert and sustaining normal daily activity.

The amount of carbs children need depends on total daily calories. Between the ages of 2 and 3 years, children should get 1,000 to 1,400 total calories daily, depending on their activity level. Calories go up to 1,200 to 1,800 from ages 4 to 8 and increase to 1,400 to 2,200 from 9 to age 13. About 50 percent to 60 percent of total calories should come from carbohydrates, recommends Kids Health.

Causes of Sugar Cravings

Low blood sugar makes children crave carbohydrates because the brain depends on sugar for energy. This type of sugar craving can be avoided by including healthy carbohydrates at every meal and snack.

The simplest way to look at a sugar craving comes from pediatric specialist Dr. William Sears, who writes on his website that the more sugar children eat, the more they want. While your child may not be addicted, a real addiction to sugar is possible.

It turns out that sugar activates reward centers in the brain, reported a study in the scientific journal Cell in January 2015. The reward center releases brain chemicals that associate sugar consumption with pleasure, which in turn reinforces sugar cravings.

Choosing Healthy Carbs

Complex carbohydrates are healthy because they contain fiber, vitamins and minerals in addition to natural sugar for energy. It's easy to work complex carbs into sweet snacks with fruits and whole-grain products, such as oats and whole-wheat flour.

By comparison, soda, candy and other sweets lack the nutrients found in complex carbs, and they're packed with added sugar, which leads to weight gain and contributes to tooth decay.

Sweetened sodas are the top source of added sugar. Just 1/2 cup of sweetened cola has more than 3 teaspoons of sugar. As you work to cut down on added sugar, be aware that fruits drinks, which are a favorite with children, contribute more added sugar to the average diet than candy.

Nutrient-Rich Sweet Substitutes

Allow your child to eat some sweets because eliminating all sugar only makes the craving worse. Choose sweets that also have some nutrients, such as whole-wheat oatmeal cookies, pumpkin cookies or whole-grain banana muffins.

Make fresh fruit more of a sweet treat by dipping apple slices into chocolate-hazelnut spread. Choose a favorite flavor of yogurt -- or low-fat yogurt ice cream for a splurge -- and top it with fresh fruit and granola. When you buy yogurt, check the label for sugar content. Some brands only have 8 grams of sugar per container, while others have three times more sugar.

Tame a sugar craving with a slice of banana, zucchini or carrot bread. When you make a homemade sweet bread, add dried fruits and nuts to boost nutrition. Mix plain oat or rice breakfast cereal with melted dark chocolate, roll into balls and refrigerate until hardened.

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