Is Your Child Hardwired For A Sweet Tooth?

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Children love sweet treats like desserts, candies and sugary snacks. If you are struggling to find ways to reduce sugar in your child’s daily diet, you are not alone. In a recent Ask the Expert feature, registered dietitian Dina Lindquist offered a few great tips to tame your child’s sweet tooth. These are really good practical tips and I am sure you have tried most of them already. Still, sometimes you wonder if you are just fighting nature and whether your child is simply hardwired to have a sweet tooth.

It is the nature vs. nurture question all over again!

My son definitely has a sweet tooth while his twin sister is not that crazy about sweets. He has an almost unstoppable craving and appetite for cookies, cake, ice-cream, raisins, chocolate and fruit yogurt – in short, anything sweet. But she doesn’t care about them as much and asks only when she is trying to imitate him or competing for our attention. Give my son anything sweet and he will do whatever you want him to do – for a while at least! “Raisins and lentil soup together”, is  one of our most effective tricks with him as we encourage him to try a healthy alternative at dinner. I am certainly not very proud of using this trick on him, but we do not want to use the promise of a sweet treat either as a reward or as a punishment when we ask him to try other foods.

The nature vs. nurture question has been on my mind for quite sometime now as I have noticed these differences in the food preferences of our twins. Over the weekend I stumbled upon a research paper “Genetic and environmental determinants of children’s  food preferences“, which provided a few interesting facts about the effect of genetic and environmental factors that affect the food preference by children:

  1. In general, humans have a natural preference for sweet taste and a dislike for anything sour or bitter. Sweetness means sugar which provides quick calories for body function and growth. Bitter and sour tasting foods may contain harmful toxins and bacteria. As a result, we have evolved to favor sweet foods over bitter and sour foods.
  2. Taste perception and food sensitivity is affected by genetic factors. Some people can sense a broad range of tastes and can tolerate a broad range of foods, while others have a limited range.
  3. Differences between identical and fraternal twins can be studied to estimate the relative importance of genetic vs. environmental factors, not only for food preference, but also for a lot of other health and behavior related issues. A recent study found high heritability for protein foods, moderate heritability for fruits and vegetables, and low heritability for dessert foods. Heritability is a number between 0 and 1; heritability of 1 for a trait in a child means that that particular trait is inherited from the parents , while a heritability of 0 means that it is acquired from the environment.
  4. In general, there is a strong link between genes and neophobia – meaning a natural tendency to dislike novel and unfamiliar foods. However, it is also natural for both children and adults to “learn” to develop a taste for new foods through experience. A personal example of this is how I have recently developed a taste for sushi in the last 4-5 years.
  5. Overall, the food choices can be controlled and shaped by familiarity to different types of foods and parental role modeling.

In short, the answer to the original question whether your child is hardwired to have a sweet tooth is a big NO! It is very natural for him to want to eat sweet stuff, but it is up to you as a parent to shape this want so that it does not get out of control. Here are a few quick tips you can try – and by all means, feel free to share your own tips that have worked for you.

Recognize the caloric needs of an active child

An active, rapidly growing child needs more calories. Not only their rapidly growing bodies but also their growing brains demand a lot of energy. The only energy type the brain can use comes from glucose, which of course comes from sugar. So it is quite natural that a growing child will crave for quick calories from sugar when hungry or after a bout of intense physical activity or mental concentration. It is important to recognize the signs of a caloric deficit before it actually happens and provide a quick, healthy snack just in time.

Introduce a wide variety of new foods

The best insurance against too much sugar is to increase the range of new foods including fruits and vegetables which your child can accept willingly. That way, sweet foods become one of the many items he will reach out for when hungry.  It will take a lot of effort and repeated attempts in small amounts at first so he can gradually develop a taste for new foods. Resist the urge to force feed or build an expectation of a reward, because in the long run such tactics do not stick.

Be a role model

A wide variety of foods in your own diet and overall healthy eating habits will have the most impact on your child as she learns to try these foods by imitation. Many studies have shown a direct relationship between food preferences of parents and their children. Like it or not, you are the first role model for your children. This does not mean that you should completely change your habits or behavior in front of children. Here are a few easy actions you can take to promote healthy eating habits without having to make big changes in your own habits. Small positive changes sustained over a long period of time will have a bigger, more permanent effect than big changes made overnight without a sustained follow up.

Save sweet treats for special occasions

There is nothing wrong with enjoying a nice dessert after a special meal. After all, there should be joy in eating and a good dessert completes the feeling of satisfaction in both the tongue and the stomach. Pleasures of food and dining are as important as the healthiness of good nutrition. Enjoying a sweet treat in this way teaches children that sweets are not “bad for you”, rather they should be reserved for special occasions. The goal is to help them learn how to regulate their cravings and not label food as “good” or “bad”.

What do you think? What has worked for you as you try to tame your child’s sweet tooth?

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