Is sugar an ‘essential childhood experience’?

Is sugar an ‘essential childhood experience’?

Ahead of my daughter’s first birthday party one week ago, I’d mentioned to a couple of friends that I might skip the standard sugary birthday cake in favour of a "healthier" version.

One thing raw vegans do really well are "healthy" desserts, right? So I thought I’d make one of those.

Sugary birthday cakes… an essential childhood experience?

I figured she has a whole lifetime to develop a sugar addiction and hasn’t yet tasted sugar (apart from in its natural, fruit form) so she doesn’t know what she’s missing. And, I mean… she’s one.

But a sugar-free cake at a birthday party is apparently a highly contentious issue.

“You can’t do that,” friends – even my partner – said in shock. “You’re depriving her of an essential childhood experience.”

One friend recounted the story of an acquaintance who had been denied sugar as a child and, when she left home, rebelled by gorging on it endlessly.

Psychologist Meredith Fuller also recalls a dentist she knew, who had seen first-hand the impact of sugar consumption (tooth decay is as much as 66 per cent higher among children who eat a lot of sugar).

At home, he banned it completely. But his children started to steal sweet treats from the other children at school. Later in life, they experienced guilt and shame about enjoying anything sweet.

Fuller says we need to acknowledge sugar is addictive and excess of anything is a concern.

“But, we also want to encourage children to have a good, balanced approach to eating for health and pleasure.”

And food is as much about pleasure as it is as health. This fact crystallised for me watching my daughter breastfeed; from birth, we don't just eat when we’re hungry, babies suckle for comfort and pleasure too. In fact, Oxford University neuroscientist Morton Kringelbach argues that the “evolutionary imperatives of survival” that underpin eating are impossible without pleasure, meaning it might just be “evolution’s boldest trick”.

From a health perspective, Kara Landau, an accredited practicing dietitian and founder of Uplift Food, says having cake at a birthday party “is not going to be the make or break of any child’s health”.

The problem is that Australian children are eating too much sugar – about one third of their daily energy intake comes from sugar – and about one in four are now overweight or obese.

“I think parents' aim should be to look for naturally occurring sugars which are a part of otherwise healthy foods as opposed to being over concerned about creating a completely sugar free environment for their children,” says Landau.

“The goal isn’t to create anxiety or restricted eating patterns for life, but rather promote the consumption healthier foods… Setting healthier eating patterns on a regular basis will help children understand the place different foods have in an overall diet, and will allow for 'sometimes foods' to be able to be enjoyed, yet still understood."

It’s a lot more complicated than just teaching kids to avoid completely

Some more extreme parenting techniques – like completely banning sugar – are driven by our desire to protect our children from harm, explains psychologist Dr Marny Lishman.

“But, we are not just raising kids, we are raising future adults, and they are going to encounter harmful substances at some point, whether in the early years or when they do become adults,” she says.

“So they do need to have learnt other skills, apart from being just deprived of things. Otherwise it could spark a bit more curiosity and temptation in the future than there needs to be. It’s a lot more complicated than just teaching kids to avoid completely.”

The author’s daughter wasn’t overwhelmed by ‘the pavlova’.

Instead of banning foods or labelling them as “good” or “bad”, which can lead to shame or hiding of food, Dr Lishman says it is more effective to create an enjoyable experience around healthy foods.

“Ideally we should be focusing on healthy foods and positivity around eating these as part of our daily food intake,” she says. “Little bits of sugar now and then, plus a promotion of balance is more beneficial.”

We can also teach a well-adjusted attitude to food by encouraging children to learn their own hunger cues and to trust how foods make them feel, adds Fuller.

I succumbed to peer pressure and ended up making a pavlova (an "essential" Australian cake) topped with coconut yoghurt and fresh fruit. Funnily enough, my daughter was more interested in smearing it on me than eating it (though she did eat a blueberry "smartie" from the top).

Next time, I won't mention whether or not the birthday cake contains sugar because I don't think it really matters.

“If you just put a cake in front of them – if it’s beautifully presented and it’s yummy and they’re with people who love them – most kids won’t know the difference,” Fuller says.

“Children love the event of the birthday. Are they going to ask you for a list of the ingredients?”

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