Body & Fitness

The sugar wars

As evidence against sugar mounts, parents aren’t just banning their kids from eating it, but judging those mums and dads who allow sweet treats. But could the ‘food shamers’ be the ones at fault?

How often do you hear one mum whispering about another mum’s parenting decisions? From week night bedtimes to manners, extracurricular activities and even how much – or little – time mum spends at work, few choices are off-limits. And as childhood obesity and food allergies continue to rise, perhaps the most talked about topic is what children are allowed to eat.

Snacks high in fat and salt are up there on the hit list of well-intentioned but often brutal judgements, but it’s sugar that continues to attract the ire of many New Zealand parents. An increasing number don’t let their kids eat any sugar – even at birthday parties – and are often quick to comment on other mums’ and dads’ decisions to allow it. This ‘sugar shaming’ is far from sweet, and according to experts it may be encouraging us to take our healthy habits too far. There’s no doubt many children eat too much sugar and excess amounts can lead to health problems, but it turns out banning it completely may not be best for children’s wellbeing.


When it comes to kids’ nutrition, sugar is a controversial area. We know eating too much refined sugar – found in soft drinks, lollies, cakes and biscuits – increases the risk of obesity thanks to all those empty calories. Carrying too much weight boosts the likelihood of chronic illness like heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, especially for those who are overweight from childhood. We also know children in New Zealand are getting heavier and eat too much of the white stuff. Kiwi kids eat an average 16 teaspoons of sugar each day, far more than the recommended five teaspoons for four to six-year-olds and six teaspoons for children aged seven to 10. Worryingly, around one third of New Zealand children are overweight or obese. But despite a flood of poor press and the growing popularity of anti-sugar campaigns, most leading health experts and institutions say we don’t need to cut out sugar com-pletely, instead recommending we limit our intake of sugary foods and drinks. For parents, this means allowing kids to eat sugar occasionally as a treat.

“The evidence on sugar is really around two things,” says Sarah Hanrahan, dietitian at New Zealand Nutrition Foundation. “One is the impact on dental health, where the evidence is very strong that too much sugar in the diet, and in particular eaten without brushing teeth, causes a problem. The other is lots of sugar adds a lot of calories to the diet so children can become more easily overweight. In all of that there’s still a case for children to have a treat.”


Hanrahan says parents should feel free to let children enjoy a sugary treat on special occasions like birthday parties. “Parents don’t need to panic and say, ‘When my child is at a special occasion they need to be avoiding all sugar’ because it’s the food you eat every day that’s important,” she says. “It’s what goes into school lunches, what you eat for breakfast, what you have on the dinner table at night, the normal dietary pattern you have that’s really important. For adults and children, what’s best for overall health is a diet that has a lot of wholefoods in it. A diet that is mainly wholefoods will take care of lots of nutrients that people often worry about.”

Even Dr Simon Thornley, a public health physician and spokesperson for FIZZ, an organisation that advocates for ending the sale of sugar sweetened beverages in New Zealand because of the health risks of overconsumption, says although his children eat almost no refined sugar at home he doesn’t worry about the occasional treat.

“I’m not overzealous about removing absolutely all sugar from the kids’ diet but I’ll avoid the main sources,” he says. “I make sure there are no soft drinks, cordial, sugary breakfast cereals or lollies at home. At birthday parties there will be sugary cakes and sweets on offer and I’m not too worried about that. I don’t want my kids to be excluded from birthday parties because their dad is the sugar Nazi.”


What’s more, in much the same way children learn to associate holidays with having fun, they make connections between foods and the places where they usually eat those foods. According to Dr Carol Wham, a dietitian and senior lecturer at Massey University’s College of Health, keeping those connections intact is especially important when it comes to promoting healthy sugar habits.

“Food eaten in positive social contexts such as party food tends to be very palatable, so when children are in positive contexts paired with positive social interaction their preferences for the food in those contexts are obviously enhanced,” she says. “When you restrict children’s access to palatable foods in positive social contexts it makes those foods even more highly preferred.

“Sugary food needs to be kept as a treat food but it’s really important to try to relax because of the social meaning of those foods. It’s important for parents to let their children control their own food intake in those situations, because any coercion, bribery or rewards is going to be counterproductive.”


The same goes for focusing on a nutritious, low-sugar diet at home. Research shows family environment and parental behaviour are vital factors in influencing healthy eating patterns in children, and the benefits often extend beyond direct behaviour modelling. Children whose parents eat breakfast are more likely to consume fruit and vegetables at least five times a day, and boys who regularly eat dinner with their family are less likely to turn to energy-dense favourites like sugary drinks.

“The biggest influence, on younger kids especially, is what you do at home,” says Hanrahan. “The way you eat, talk and behave at home is what will set up those habits. Children will all love to have packets of sweets and chips in their lunch boxes, but it’s the way you behave at home around having small amounts of these foods that really matters.”

Wham agrees: “The social meaning of food is really important because of the way children learn preferences and learn to like food. They’re going to be exposed to food for all of their lives so it’s important parents are authoritative and sensible, rather than authoritarian and rigid, because that’s likely to result in favourable outcomes.”


There is also evidence to suggest children are capable of regulating their energy intake according to hunger and satiety cues. It may sound obvious – who doesn’t want to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full? – but many adults have become distracted from this wisdom. Instead of eating when we’re hungry, we eat in response to a range of social cues like stress, boredom or sadness.

Children, on the other hand, have an innate ability to eat intuitively. “There’s evidence children can self-regulate their energy intake, and controlling parents might override that process,” says Wham. “There are studies from way back that show children can successfully self-select foods to meet their needs, which is amazing. We couldn’t do these sorts of studies now, but in the 1940s they looked at children self-selecting food and they could self-select and eat most foods that are recommended in the food nutrition guidelines.”

A small but growing body of research indicates differences in the way parents feed their children are linked to differences in the children’s self-regulation of energy intake. Accepting your child’s cues of hunger and satiety and helping them to make appropriate (read: low-sugar) choices about the type and amount of food they consume can help to develop healthy food habits for life.

Wham explains it can take up to 10 repeated exposures for children to get used to new foods, but the benefits of persevering will outweigh any dinnertime squabbles.

“We’re born with an innate preference for sweet so when children come to eat vegetables, which are inherently quite bitter, it can be a struggle,” she says. “Children will learn to prefer the foods they’re exposed to through a process of gaining familiarity through repeated exposure. They learn their food habits and they’re pretty hard to undo as adults. Repeated exposure and familiarity has a lot to do with children developing good habits and being able to control their own energy intake.”

Words by Angela Tufvesson

Photographs Yasu & Junko,, Snapper Media and iStock Images

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