By Sarah Kamrath
Web Exclusive - June 6, 2008
When I tell people my five-year-old son, Lukas, has never had any refined sugar, some look at me as if I have two heads and ask me how I could be so cruel. But many are curious how it is possible. Lukas is a very social child who attends school, has playdates with friends, loves a good party, and even went to a summer camp where at the end of each week the kids had a big scavenger hunt for candy. So, as with all children, there are plenty of occasions during which he is around sugar.
I will be the first to admit that completely avoiding all refined sugar is not the easiest thing to do. I also understand that it might not be desirable for every parent—a little sugar here and there isn't going to do any real harm, however, I have also found that most parents would like to avoid sugar as much as possible in their children's diet.
So for anyone who is interested in trying to limit empty, sugar-filled calories and get their children to eat more nutritious foods, the following are some practices I have found useful.
1) Start early.
Really early. A mother's nutrition during pregnancy influences the long-term health of her child by shaping her baby's metabolism and food preferences. A child's sense of taste actually begins to develop prenatally, with taste buds emerging at 7-8 weeks of age. Research shows that both flavors and smells from the mother's diet can pass into her bloodstream and then into both the amniotic fluid and fetal blood. An unborn baby is actually able to taste the different flavors of foods his mother eats and will swallow more amniotic fluid when the mother consumes something sweet.
In a recent study by the Monell Institute of America, researchers found that babies whose mothers had been given carrot juice regularly while pregnant preferred the taste of carrots far more than babies whose mothers had not. This study and others like it show that you can actually program your baby to be a healthier child and adult by the choices you make while pregnant. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I ate tons of broccoli—I was probably craving the extra calcium. After my daughter was born and I started her on solids, she had such a strong affinity for broccoli that her dad would joke that she was going to be the first human to weigh 50 pounds from eating solely breastmilk and broccoli!
The days when people believed that pregnancy was a license to eat whatever you want are over. We know now that if there is ever a time to be overly cautious about what you put in your body, it is when you are pregnant; your choices either nourish your baby or not. Just as you avoid things such as alcohol and tobacco that are bad for your unborn child, you might also consider avoiding sugary foods that are packed with lots of calories, few nutrients, and also encourage the development of a sweet tooth later in life.
When I first introduced foods to Lukas, I avoided all sweet fruits and focused on nutrient-dense, dark, green vegetables. If given the option, who wouldn't choose a banana over broccoli? Lukas' first solid food was avocado, followed by plain, steamed, mashed vegetables. When I went to our local health food store, I would get a large cup of juiced green vegetables and share it with him. One of my in-laws' preferred stories is when they asked Lukas at two-and-a-half what his favorite food was, and he replied, "Kale."
2) Only offer healthy options.
We have a rule in our house that you have to try something before you say no. When Lukas says he doesn't want a certain food and I make him try one bite, many times he'll look at me and say "Mmmm, I like that." If he doesn't, I won't force him to eat it, but I will continue to re-introduce it to him one bite at a time. By repeatedly offering healthy foods to children, the foods eventually become more familiar and your child is likely to develop a taste for them. In fact, research shows that it can take up to 10 times of tasting the same food before this happens, so be patient.
Also, if your child complains about a certain food and refuses to eat it, try not to quickly substitute it with one of his favorites. If he knows that when he complains and makes a fuss that you will simply prepare him something else to eat, then be prepared to do just that. If you explain to him that this is dinner and if he doesn't eat it then he will be hungry (and you are consistent with this message), then he is much more likely to give it a real try. Don't worry—he won't starve!
In the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers note that the reluctance to try new foods may have had an evolutionary advantage in preventing exposure to potentially toxic foods. Keep this in mind when you think your child is trying to drive you crazy! It may be hard work, but your investment now will pay off for your children throughout their lives. Also, offer new foods when your child is hungry and more willing to try something different.
It's also helpful to familiarize your child with lots of fresh vegetables and fruits before she reaches an age when she doesn't want to try anything new. As I mentioned, at two-and-a-half, Lukas' favorite dish was steamed kale, broccoli, and cabbage in a miso dressing, but if you tried to give him a bite of pizza he acted like you were trying to feed him a mud pie. The only possible explanation for this strange rejection was that he was simply avoiding something unfamiliar. This demonstrated the importance of first foods in developing food preferences and the need to make those first foods the most nutritious options. One food which he has always happily eaten is avocado—his first food!
3) Eat and discuss.
Help your children understand why certain foods are good for their bodies, while others are not. From the time Lukas first started eating (he breastfed exclusively until 9 months), I have always explained to him how the protein in certain foods makes his muscles strong and how the vitamins in others helps his body fight germs. As he gets older and understands more, I can really see the pride he takes in eating foods that he believes are keeping him healthy. He tells me that he eats fish and flax seeds to make him smart, and he eats dark green vegetables like kale, spinach, and broccoli to make him strong. He also understands that sugar is not good for his teeth. I had a good laugh as I was writing this article, and Lukas came up to me with his belly sticking out as far as he could and said, "Hey Mom, look at my big belly! I ate some donuts like Grandpa."
4) Ignorance is bliss.
Don't let them know what they are missing for as long as possible. I believe a part of my success in avoiding sugar for as long as I have is that he doesn't crave what he hasn't tried. Lukas has still never had a donut, ice cream, or any candy. For now, as far as he knows, a donut may taste like his whole grain bagel, and ice cream may be no tastier than his fruit smoothie popsicle. Now that he is older, he does eat cookies, cakes, and popsicles like all other children his age—only Lukas' treats don't contain any refined sugar. Today there are several healthier sweeteners available other than refined sugar such as fruit juice, honey, molasses, agave, maple, stevia, and so on. Here are some of our favorite recipes for homemade sugar-free treats.
5) Cook together.
Shopping and cooking with your children can be a lot of fun and also a great learning experience. You can start teaching your children to read labels and help them begin to understand that most of the long, difficult-to-read words are probably ingredients that shouldn't be in their bodies. At the store, let your children choose a new vegetable that they think looks good, and then try to prepare something with it together. Whenever we make a meal together, Lukas really takes pride in what he has made and is much more likely to eat and enjoy it. It always surprises me how much more willing he is to try new healthy foods when he has helped prepare them (even if a recipe doesn't turn out as tasty as I hoped!). Another important thing you can do for your child's health, as well as for your own, is to concentrate your grocery shopping on the outer aisles of the store. Most of the sugar and preservative-laden foods are in the middle of the grocery store—the whole, fresh, live foods are along the periphery.
6) Spread the word.
Make sure you communicate to the people who may be caring for your children what you prefer them to eat. It is also helpful if your child can articulate what he eats and doesn't (this is also important if your child has any allergies). Early on, I let my family and friends know that Lukas does not eat sugar. When he goes on playdates, I discuss this with the parents and I have yet to have any problems. What I am finding is that most people have read or heard enough about nutrition and the negative effects of sugar that, even if they themselves choose to give their children sugar, they respect the fact that I do not. As far as childcare providers and schools are concerned, I would hope they are not using sugar as a way to reward, discipline, or pacify your child.
7) Plan ahead.
It does take a little extra time in the kitchen planning and preparing foods for when we are away from home and on special occasions. That said, the additional time it takes to pack a cooler or some small snack bags when we are on the go is worth it because of the satisfaction I feel when my children are enjoying their treats instead of the sugary, preservative-laden foods available at most convenient locations. It only takes a couple of minutes to grab some fruit (apples, grapes, bananas), nuts, cut veggies (carrot sticks, peppers, celery), muffins, whole grain bread with almond butter and jelly, hummus, avocado, and so on.
8) Practice what you preach.
I really try not to eat anything around my children that they can't eat as well. You send a very mixed message to your children when you tell them they can't have certain foods, and then you eat them yourself. Remove temptation—keep sugary foods out of the house and find alternatives to satisfy you and your child's sweet cravings. As your children watch you nourish your body with wholesome foods, you are teaching them by example.
My sister and I were raised in a sugar-free home, however, when we reached the age where we were making our own decisions about what to eat, we went through phases where avoiding sugar was not a high priority. I'm sure there will come a day when Lukas will do the same from time to time, however, as my sister and I proved, and as studies support, most children return in adulthood to the way they ate as a child. Habits formed early in life can last a lifetime. The best we can do for our children is to give them a healthy foundation and the knowledge to make educated decisions about their own health as they get older.