Five things you can do when your child is hooked on sugary food

A young girl holding a plate of croissants and pastries.

Sweet treats – kids just love them and it’s only human to crave that hit of sweetness in our meals and snacks. However when a child is hooked on the sweet stuff, grazes all day on snacks and refuses point blank to eat barely anything else, then this should ring alarm bells. Without the balance of protein, healthy fats and veggies in their diet, a child’s energy, mood and school performance are likely to be affected and over time a high-sugar diet can also lead to metabolic imbalance and tooth decay.

Sugar addiction is very real and understanding the reasons why a child craves or binges on high carb sugary foods and drinks can help parents to work out a strategy to help them make healthier and more balanced choices.

Here are five reasons your child might be hooked on sugary foods and what you can do about it:

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1. Addicted to ultra-processed foods (UPFs)

Many food manufacturers rely on refined starches and sugars to create products that are not only tasty but are also moreish and addictive. They also often use a magic combination of 1:2 ratio of fat to carbohydrate to make the food even more irresistible. Addiction is a strong word, but research shows that this activity is what is happening in the brain when the reward pleasure system is turned on by these “blissy” foods. Consuming sweet foods leads to a temporary dopamine surge which makes us associate consuming that food with feeling good, and can set up cravings for more… more… more…

These UPFs (packaged foods with typically five or more ingredients) are designed to tickle our taste buds in such a way that we find ourselves continually coming back for more. And this is where the iconic slogan “once you pop you can’t stop” came from, and why it is almost impossible to just eat a few crisps out of a family pack.

Ingredients high in “umami” free-glutamate such as yeast extract, fruit extracts and natural flavourings are particularly addictive and are added to most crisps, crackers, sweets, stock cubes and shop-bought snacks these days. They are even added to some organic foods and snacks. Free-glutamate has an excitatory action on the brain and in sensitive kids can overstimulate them, leading to hyperactivity and difficulty falling asleep or restless sleep. A brain wired by too much glutamate can be distracted and unfocused.

Action: The best thing you can do to curb their exposure to these highly addictive starches is to start to cook more food from scratch. The first step is to try and recreate the food they love to eat in your kitchen using real food ingredients. For example, making your own chips is really simple and avoids the additional starches and sugars that are often added to packaged versions.

2. Rollercoaster blood glucose levels

Regulating blood glucose balance is crucial for maintaining energy levels and curbing food cravings. When children don’t consume enough protein and healthy fats, they are more prone to blood glucose imbalances, which can lead to a continual cycle of energy dips and increased food cravings which can look like grazing on snacks all day. They are likely to get “hangry” easily due to a dip in blood glucose. Including foods rich in protein and healthy fats in their diet can help keep their blood glucose levels balanced.

Action: To help regulate their blood sugars, ensure that there is a source of protein at every meal and snack. Use meat or fish, cheese, eggs, nuts or pulses like lentils or chickpeas at meal times and pair fruit with nut butter or cream cheese and veggie sticks with hummus when your kids snack. If you use processed meat for snacks, try to make sure it is free of nitrites. Adding cinnamon or apple to milky porridge at breakfast can help to stabilise blood sugars and start the day off well.

3. Lack of magnesium

Magnesium plays an integral role in maintaining blood sugar levels and energy. Our cells need a constant supply of fats, carbohydrate and protein to help them create energy within the cell. Magnesium is one of the key nutrients that aids the transport of carbohydrates and fats from the blood stream into our cells. A deficiency of this vital mineral can lead to inefficient uptake of these macro nutrients. This, in turn, can trigger signals being sent back to the brain warning it that the cells need more carbohydrate and fat to function, leading to an increase in junk food cravings.

Action: Magnesium can be boosted through diet and foods high in magnesium include dark chocolate, nuts and seeds, leafy green vegetables and whole grains. The skin absorbs magnesium if applied topically via a magnesium spray or if your child soaks in a bath with magnesium flakes or Epsom salts. You can also supplement if needed.

4. Not enough chromium

Chromium is another critical mineral for blood sugar balance. It assists in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and protein, which can help to stabilise blood sugar levels and reduce food cravings. Despite its importance, chromium deficiency is quite common.

Action: Chromium is abundant in foods such as mussels, meat, broccoli, brazil nuts, oats and green beans and over time these foods can help your child maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Chromium supplements can help if your child does not eat these foods regularly.

5. Yeast overgrowth

An overgrowth of yeast, particularly Candida Albicans, in the gut can lead to insatiable sugar and carb cravings. This yeast feeds off sugars and refined carbohydrate, which can create an imbalanced gut microbiome, further exacerbating cravings for sweet foods.

Yeast overgrowth often occurs shortly after taking a round of antibiotics, if the immune system is weak or if you live in a humid or damp environment or if the child is low in a mineral called zinc. Signs your child might have a yeast imbalance in addition to the carb cravings include a white coated tongue, thrush (oral or vaginal or nappy rash), skin or nail fungal infections, a bloated or gassy tummy, giggling for no reason during the day or whilst asleep as well as brain fog.

Action: Controlling this yeast overgrowth can be hard and is ideally is done under the care of a practitioner who is well versed in gut health. You can make a good start with the addition of live bacteria and prebiotics. And regularly using culinary herbs such as oregano, cloves and garlic can help manage these cravings.

Round up

The sugary food cravings that children often have might be more than just a love for sweets things. These cravings and sugar binges can be a sign of deeper nutritional and gut microbiome imbalances. By addressing these issues and working on longer-term healthier eating habits, parents can help their children curb their sugar cravings, leading to a healthier, happier life with a better relationship with food.

If you’d like to explore why your child has such strong sugar cravings, please contact our clinic using the tab above.

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