Will Our Sugar Obsession Lead to Eating Disorders in Kids?


Will Our Sugar Obsession Lead to Eating Disorders in Kids?

03, June 2014 8:00 AM

When my twins started Transitional Kindergarten in the fall, I don't think they even knew what sugar was. Sure, it was something we kept in the cabinet and took out to bake with, but beyond that it wasn't given much thought. Instead, our food conversations revolved around "foods that build our bodies," the importance of "eating lots of different foods," and that "we've had enough dessert for today." We didn't single out sugar as a food topic, much less obsess about avoiding it or labeling it "bad."

Within a few months of school starting, I heard my children say things like "that food has a lot of sugar in it," "it's bad for you," "sugar will make you fat and rot your teeth." Because I was teaching a positive and inclusive approach to eating, one that doesn't mark foods "bad," I would try to counterbalance their statements with other things we know to be true: "sugar is in a lot of foods that we like to eat and foods that are healthy for you" or "concentrating on the foods that build your body is what is really important" or "your grandparents ate sugar, it's not a 'bad' thing."

Should Emotion Play a Part in Food Choices?

Around mid-schoolyear, I realized just how much this negative sugar perception was a factor for their friends. My daughter came home from school and told me that her 4-year-old classmate decided to forgo dessert that day during lunch to be "respectful to her parents." She then told me the story about how this girl's parents criticized her for whining for sugar and sweets and pointed out to her that she had eaten a lot of it recently and needed to stop. The girl believed that she would get in trouble if she continued to ask for more sweets and felt like she was being a "respectful, good girl" by not eating dessert.

My daughter couldn't even say the word respectful (it came out as 'spectful), let alone understand how emotionally charged the statement was. It is my understanding that mixing emotion with food is one of the ways to develop unhealthy habits and disordered eating, so this conversation made me nervous. I tried to clarify with her that eating dessert was nothing to feel badly about, especially if she had filled her tummy with the foods that help her grow during lunch too.

Does Sugar Bashing Have Unintended Consequences?

I understand why parents might be worrying about sugar and teaching this approach. We know that Americans' sugar intake is too high. But is all the sugar-talk leading us to focus on it and forget the bigger picture? If we vilify and attempt to ban sugar from our diets or even the enjoyment of eating it, are we setting our children up for a lifetime of feeling guilty when they decide to indulge?

I also wonder if by labeling sugar as "bad" we may also be setting up a confusing double standard for our kids. I add honey to their bowls of plain Greek yogurt, and I sprinkle brown sugar on their oatmeal. These are healthy and nutritious foods that they need to grow, and I am all for adding some sweetener to them to enhance the taste so that the foods will actually be eaten. But if suddenly they are worrying about the "bad" sugar in the whipped cream atop their strawberries, we are putting way too much focus on some things (carbohydrates and sweetness) that belong in a balanced diet. Plus, we know that kids crave sweets because they are growing

Ellyn Satter has provided evidence-based guidance on dealing with forbidden food, and I have found that it has worked beautifully with my children. We follow her philosophy to the letter – sitting down to family meals with all the food groups present and serving dessert most nights and letting them indulge from time-to-time.

The piece of evidence that is most telling to me that the "sugar is bad" approach is not working is when my children are with their peers at parties. Kids who feel restricted from treats, spend the entire time begging for permission to eat more of the "forbidden food." Mine help themselves to a serving and move on to another activity. They don't feel deprived or that they need to gorge themselves while that food is available, because they have confidence that another day or two will pass and there will be more sweets or chips.

What do you think? Do you find that the "bad" sugar-talk gets positive results? Is it impeding our kids from having a healthy relationship with food?

LeAnne R. Ruzzamenti, MA
Director of Marketing Communications
Dairy Council of California 

Tags: division of responsibility Healthy eating healthy foods LeAnne Ruzzamenti


  • Sonia Sen 4 years 68 days ago
    Thanks for sharing this informative blog with us. My pleasure to being here on your blog..I wanna come back here for new post from your site.


  • Carlos Verduzco 5 years 240 days ago
    I just saw the documentary FED UP. I had heard about the sugar before but after seeing this movie sugar is BAD. A few months ago I went on a 30 day clean eating challenge and even-though it was hard I saw the difference. We need to wake up and realize that sugar is like a Drug. To be honest it is like what tobacco was in the past. The government is not going to say this because its big money. We need to do a grassroots movement. I don't want to know that I was the cause that my child has some health issue because i that allowed sugar to effect my family.


  • Maureen Bligh 5 years 262 days ago
    I worry that the "war on obesity"will do more harm than good. Registered Dietitian Nutrutionist Maryann Jacobson wrote an excellent piece on the negative health outcomes of food restriction in children, which totally supports LeAnne's concern about possible future eating disorders. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maryann-jacobsen/food-obsessed-kid_b_5319206.html

  • 5 years 263 days ago
    Exactly, Sharon. Sometimes people think moderation is too simplistic of a healthy eating philosophy, but it works for most of us. When we model moderation for kids, they will learn the realistic way to keep all foods in balance.

  • Sharon 5 years 264 days ago
    For us we try to do things in moderation. Just like those peers they too will look for more candy

  • Sharon 5 years 264 days ago
    For us we try to do things in moderation. Just like those peers they too will look for more candy


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