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Ask Dr. Sears: Curbing A Sweet Tooth

Q. It's my New Year's resolution to keep a healthy table for my 2-year-old¿ -- no junky or sugary foods. Do you think this will curb his craving for junk food later on?

A.
Yes! Cutting sugary junk foods out of your 2-year-old's diet will definitely teach him to curb his sugar cravings throughout childhood and possibly throughout his entire life.

Excessive junk sugars have the potential to harm a child in several ways. First, the rapid absorption of fiber-less (found in packaged foods, sweets, and candies) carbohydrates into the bloodstream triggers the insulin cycle, which cause a roller-coaster effect of high and low blood sugar swings. This in turn can affect a child's mood. Because fiber prevents carbohydrates from being released so quickly into your child's bloodstream, feeding your child fiber-filled (found in vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains) foods instead of junk foods can prevent mood swings, and it has the added benefit of greatly lowering the risk of developing diabetes.

Second, high doses of refined sugar -- like the 10 tablespoons in a 12-ounce can of cola -- can depress immunity. Early on in my pediatric practice, I noticed a group of parents -- whom I jokingly labeled "pure moms" -- whose preschoolers were junk food deprived. Over the years I noticed that the kids of these pure moms weren't nearly as sick as my sugar-loaded patients.

Your child enters the world with tastes programmed for sweetness; after all, breast milk is a very sweet food. The brain craves sugar as its prime energy source, and the taste buds on the tongue that detect sweetness are the most prominent in a developing infant. There's a physiological connection between carbohydrates (sugars and starches) and cravings; carbohydrates trigger increases in seratonin and endorphins, mood-regulated hormones. The brain acts as a "carbo hog," meaning that if the body does not get enough sugar to satisfy the brain, the brain actually triggers the release of neurochemicals that make a person crave more.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children need at least 50 percent of their daily diet in the form of carbohydrates. As a general guide, remember a good carbohydrate is fiber-filled and a bad carbohydrate is fiber-less. Get used to reading nutrition labels. A fiber-filled carbohydrate will have whole grains listed in the ingredients and at least three grams of fiber per serving, while a packaged, fiber-less carbohydrate will usually have zero grams of fiber.

In our own family, we became more experienced and knowledgeable on the importance of eliminating junk food in our children's diets with each successive child. Our last four children were so junk food deprived that we seldom let a morsel of packaged, junk carbohydrates enter their mouths. Then, when they entered the world of junk food at birthday parties and preschool, we noticed that although they would delight in a piece of birthday cake or candy, they did not overdose. And if they did overindulge on junk carbohydrates, not only did the food taste foreign to them, they felt ill afterwards and would report having a case of "yuck tummy." Because they had been fed nutritious food during the first three years, they made the connection between eating good and feeling good and eating bad and feeling bad. We had programmed them to crave nutritious foods and shun junk foods.

The key to guiding your child's cravings in the right direction is to get an early start. Keep your New Year's resolution to feed your child a right-carbohydrate diet, and you will give him the best nutritional beginning.

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