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My youngest son just turned five. For years he's had a relentless craving for sweets.

  • He's constantly requesting/demanding sugary food and drinks
  • If we walk by somebody eating anything in a wrapper, he stops and stares (at the snack)
  • His first stop every morning is the pantry

Recently, he (Matthew) began throwing a tremendous tantrum out of the blue. Rolling on the ground, crying, heaving, and appearing to have convulsions. My wife and I were about to call for help, but we decided to try a lollipop first. He took the lollipop, calmed down, and within a few minutes was back at play with his brothers.

His fraternal twin brother and older brother (6), also like sweets, but don't have any addictive characteristics (i.e., when we say no, they get over it and move on).

All three are on the same diet consisting mostly of natural, fresh foods, plain water, white milk, diluted fruit juices, and the least sugary, salty snacks. We also allow them to indulge occasionally on sweets (chocolate, ice cream, birthday cakes, etc.).

However, we have never allowed Matthew to fulfill his craving for sugar (assuming that's even possible). There's always been a limit, and he's always unsatisfied.

His craving isn't confined to refined sugar. He devours peaches, grapes, watermelon and other fruits with equal pleasure.

So here's my question:

Considering that Matthew's craving for sugar is relentless, intense and has been ongoing for years, is it possible that his craving represents a legitimate nutritional need?

In other words, is it possible that his body genuinely needs more sugar, and by limiting his consumption we are actually stunting his growth and development?

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    Have you consulted a doctor? Do you think he was genuinely having some kind of reaction, or was he just tricking you into getting sugar? – Erik Oct 11 '15 at 14:45
  • @Erik I'm not sure what that tantrum was about, but it's only happened once at that extreme. He's had regular doctor's visits; medically he's fine. There may be no issue here. Maybe he'll eventually get passed the cravings for sweets. I'm just wondering if there's a long-term downside to us constantly denying him sugar day after day, year after year. Thanks. – Michael_B Oct 11 '15 at 15:15
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    Answers here will require references to back up medical claims. – Rory Alsop Oct 12 '15 at 7:45
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    This is not an expert opinion, but frankly, throwing a tantrum for a 5 year old may not necessarily be a sign of addiction. Merely a sign of being a 5 year old. They can just as likely throw a tantrum over wanting a toy or not wanting to wear socks. – user3143 Oct 12 '15 at 14:46
  • @user3143, the tantrum was included only to illustrate the intensity of his craving. I'm considering removing that paragraph because it may be irrelevant and is distracting from the key question. – Michael_B Oct 12 '15 at 15:13
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"Considering that Matthew's craving for sugar is relentless, intense and has been ongoing for years, is it possible that his craving represents a legitimate nutritional need?"

I've never heard of such a need personally. But you strike me as a grounded, sensible person trying very hard to find the best path for their child.

I think offering a non-sugar lolly as a control is a great idea to help indicate if his reaction is most likely physical or behavioural in nature.

If a similar tantrum occurs again you could also offer a banana or other piece of high-fructose fruit you know he usually enjoys. If he is happy with this and it has the same positive effect as the lolly did this time, that suggests to me it may be physically related. If he refuses and holds out for a lolly or confectionary, it may be more behavioural.

As a corollary, my 10 yr old daughter (also a fraternal twin) also has a sweet tooth. She is the healthiest eater of our 3 children and loves salads, fruit and a lot of vegetables. She's also the one who craves sweets the most, whether fruit or confectionary. More than this, she's very emotionally attached to food. If she's denied a treat she has her heart set on she gets really upset and feels it's a sign the denier is rejecting her personally. My wife and I don't get angry with her over this, but neither have we ever rewarded the behaviour by giving in and letting her have the treat. Despite that, she still acts this way and always has.

Her twin brother likes sweets but doesn't view it as an emotional betrayal when he doesn't get them. Her older brother (now 12) liked sweets when younger but now rarely eats them.

My own belief is my daughter is just very switched on to food at a fundamental level. It's simply part of who she is. At some deep level she associates food with love (although she certainly doesn't think it's "the same as" love). Of course I can see some potential pitfalls with this as she goes through life but she's an active, healthy girl who likes being outdoors and is in the normal weight range for her age. She's extremely loving and affectionate. She's a caring sister and is loved by her friends.

The view I've come to over the years is that she gains more from being supported and loved with firm, but not draconian, boundaries on her eating habits than she would from us trying to fundamentally go against her grain out of a misguided sense of zealotry. I don't believe for a minute a harsher approach would succeed in changing this part of her. It would only make her ashamed of who she is.

Charles

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    Welcome to Parenting.SE. This is a nice answer, well-grounded in personal experience.While it doesn't get into the science of whether this sugar craving is a physical need like the OP asked, I think the perspective of your child's personality provides useful information. – Acire Oct 15 '15 at 16:22
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As an adult I recently overcame my sugar-habit by drinking copious amounts of zero-sugar cola every time I felt the craving coming on. Sometimes I would drink 2 litres a day. Of course I became worried that the artificial sweetener was just as damaging. However once the sugar addiction had gone, I found it easy to give up the cola as well. Now I need neither (and I've lost weight as an unanticipated side-effect).

I am not medically qualified and I don't recommend going to that extreme with a child or without medical approval.

However...

You could use it as a one-off test. Does he really need sugar (maybe it's a medical condition) or does he just want sweet things?

Here's an idea:

You can buy sugar-free sweets in the UK and it's really difficult to tell the difference. When he is desperate for something sweet, you could give him a sugar-free sweet. If it satisfies him then you could question whether it is actual natural sugar he craves or just something sweet. However if the fake sweet doesn't make him feel better, I'd suggest checking with the doctor again because it may be a physiological problem.

You can buy a whole range of sugar free sweets in most supermarkets and pharmacies these days. (I'm assuming you are British because you use the word 'sweets') Just Google them. https://www.google.co.uk/?gws_rd=ssl#q=sugar+free+sweets

Note

I'm not suggesting a long-term, complete switch to sweeteners. I mostly avoid them myself now. I just thought of them as a way to do a simple one-off test. The fact that they are readily available in many supermarkets may or may not indicate some degree of safety. As I mentioned, I have no medical qualifications and my ideas are only that - they aren't recommendations.

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    I'm not sure about artificial sweeteners. Those are chemicals. Currently, I avoid them 100% in my childrens' diet (and 90% in mine). However, your test idea is worth consideration. Thank you... and I'm actually in New York (and not British). Just using sweets as a general term :-) – Michael_B Oct 11 '15 at 22:09
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    refined sugar is also a chemical... :) and there are some non-sugar sweeteners that occur naturally, like erythritol – Eevee Oct 11 '15 at 22:20
  • My friends gave me dire warnings about the artificial stuff. However (apart from a slight laxative effect!), I started to feel fantastic. Instead of constantly craving food, I began having regular meals and instead of sleeping in the afternoon I stayed awake the whole day and slept properly at night. This happened while I was still using the s/f cola but it's still happening now that I've stopped the cola as well. These days I think of added sugar as tantamount to poison and I'm a fanatical reader of labels now. – chasly from UK Oct 11 '15 at 22:33
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    @Michael_B: You would quite simply starve by avoiding chemicals. All foods are chemicals, artificial sweeteners not more so than anything else. – Marcks Thomas Oct 11 '15 at 23:09
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    @MarcksThomas, Eevee, yes, I get your point. Probably a poor choice of a words on my part. I'm not an expert on the science, but I tend to avoid artificial sweeteners because to me they seem more closely related to pharmaceuticals than sugar cane. I won't belabor to the point, or argue the merits (I admit this is just my impression), but that's what I was meaning to say. – Michael_B Oct 11 '15 at 23:25
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From the outset, I am not a scientist, and have read a bit about sugar and diet to try and understand things better. What follows is my understanding about sugar. There may be some mistakes here, but I'll try and reference information where I can.

It largely depends on what you define as "deprive".

If you completely remove all sugars from a child's diet (lactose, fructose, glucose, sucrose etc.), then yes, this is largely going to be detrimental to the child since the human body does require sugars (there's also evidence to suggest that removing sugar from your diet and relying on a high fat diet can, paradoxically, lead to insulin resistance).

Digging deeper into the types of sugars out there, watch Dr. Lustig's video "Sugar: The Bitter Truth". While there is some controversy around what he says, from what I've read I do believe there is a large dosage of truth in what he describes. I will try summarise what I can recall.

Glucose is not very sweet, and tends to be better processed as a sugar by the body, primarily due to the fact that 80% of glucose can be broken and used by most of the organs in your body. Every cell in your body can pretty much use glucose. 20% of the calories from glucose hit the liver, gets stored as glycogen, which the liver can store in pretty much massive quantities without ill-effect, and be used as energy (Lactose gets broken down by an enzyme called lactese, but I won't get into that here, since this is not really relevant.) It's a lot more involved, as it also sends good signals to the rest of you body to increase insulin, tell you to stop eating etc. etc. A pretty good loop that is healthy.

Fructose and sucrose, both of which are infinitely sweeter, however, gets broken down by the liver, roughly 80% of the calories. Unlike glucose, cells and other organs in your body cannot break it down on their own.

However, this is only part of the story. Bacteria in your gut can also break down fructose, which is why fructose from fruit (that often come with high levels of fibre) has less of a health issue than added fructose in low-fibre foods, since the fibre causes the sugars to stay in your gut longer, hence the bacteria there can deal with it better.

Added sugars that are ingested with very low levels of fibre (think fruit juices, soft drinks, very sugary foods like cakes etc.) tend to go straight to the liver to get broken down in almost the same way that ethanol is broken down, which can help lead to increased levels of obesity and health problems if consumed in large quantities. There are a number of other factors at play, such as large quantities of added sugar inhibiting signals from your body telling you that you're full and had enough to eat, and that you're no longer hungry.

What Dr. Lustig proposes is that fructose and sucrose are essentially a poison in the way your body deals with and processes them. Many of the health effects linked to high consumption of added fructose and sucrose are similar to health issues seen in alcoholics.

The actual process is a lot more involved than the brief description here, but is described at length in Lustig's video.

All this suggests that restricting added sugars in your child's diet is a very, very good thing.

In your particular case, one thing to keep in mind is that people are different, even children from the same parents. Experiences, drugs, food etc. all affect people in different ways, and some people derive intense pleasure from things that others don't. All children respond to stimuli in a different way, and from what you describe, your child derives intense pleasure from things that are sweet. Sugar is addictive because it is a type of hyperpalatables, that is, a foodstuff that stimulates the pleasure centres of the brain. Processed sucrose and fructose, high fructose corn syrup etc. are intensely sweet, far more than lactose and glucose, and thus trigger much higher levels of pleasure than other types of sugar.

Some people are going to be affected by this more than others. Children in particular are very susceptible to experiences that trigger their pleasure sensors because it can be very intense for them. Think about it: it's a new experience, and if it's pleasurable, they want to repeat it. They haven't developed the willpower to recognise good things in moderation. If I were to just think of my child, for example, he gets great pleasure from very particular types of activities (for example, watching a TV show), and if I remove those activities, it can lead to behaviour such as you describe: tantrums, jealousy at others who are allowed to take part in this activity, longing etc.

It seems to me, then, that your child is likely not trying to satisfy a dietary need, but is rather trying to satisfy a pleasure craving. I'm not saying it's not impossible that he has a requirement, but it does seem highly unlikely since he doesn't seem to show any other health issues you'd relate to a lack of something in his diet. If you are worried about it, then seek professional advice, but I think it is highly unlikely.

As hard as it may be, I'd suggest you're on the right track by pushing through and teaching him to control his impulses to satisfy this pleasure craving. Satisfying this craving with sugars from fruit is definitely a good solution. Rewarding his tantrum with the very thing he is craving (that is, processed sugars in sweets, soft drinks etc.) is going to cause more problems for you later on since he's going to repeat this behaviour.

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Did children (humans) have access to refined sugar in the last several million years? Obviously not, they mostly only had a rather limited supply of fruit sugar. So, absent any special medical condition, children do not need refined sugar. Otherwise we as a species wouldn't have survived.

Sugar in its refined form is mainly pure energy in a form that's easy to process for the human body. As such it is hard to come by without any industry, while our oversized brains need an incredible amount of energy. Thus we crave energy-rich food.

However, if we consume too much of it, the body stores it away and we get fat. Nowadays, it is not a problem to have access to energy, the problem is to fight the natural craving and not to eat more than you need.

  • The question mentions that the craving isn't just for refined sugars, but for fruit sugars as well -- which are very much a part of the human historic diet. – Mark Oct 11 '15 at 23:55
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    The first part of your answer is a naturalistic fallacy. You could just as easily argue that because humans have survived without clean drinking water, vaccinations, or formal education, that children don't need them. – dwjohnston Oct 12 '15 at 3:31
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    @sbi - I'm not quite sure this answers the question? – anongoodnurse Oct 12 '15 at 4:30
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    I think his answer is in the 3rd sentence. "So, absent any special medical condition, children do not need refined sugar". Why do you think he did not answer the question? – Adam Heeg Oct 12 '15 at 15:45
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    @dwjohnston: Most of our ancestors had rather clean drinking water, so this argument is just plain wrong. The need for vaccination comes from so much of us living so close (which wasn't the case before the neolithic revolution allowed such population density) and formal education is a necessity caused by our society's complexity. In that, your examples differ fundamentally from food, which has always been important. Why do you think it is unlikely that our bodies adapted to the food we ate in the last 50k-5m years, and that we ate the food that these bodies need? – sbi Oct 12 '15 at 17:42
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You've already got a lot of answers, but I think this is a really important topic and would like to chime in.

If you can, I'd recommend you watch a movie called "Fed Up" (http://fedupmovie.com/#/page/home). I saw it on Netflix, but it may be available streaming elsewhere.

I'll try to summarize, but the bottom line is it's all about sugar and how it has transformed our nation. I'll disclose that as proud member of the right-wing conspiracy I strongly disagree with most of the conclusions of the documentary, most notably that the answer to sugar is that the government needs to jump in, take action and shut down the free market. The film even admits that the government and its screwed up FDA guidelines are largely responsible for creating the problem.

That aside, it's a worthwhile watch full of valuable take-aways with research to back up those claims:

  1. Sugar is bad
  2. It's also everywhere, even in names we don't associate with "sugar" (ie Agave)
  3. Things we eat that are not sugar may actually metabolize into sugar anyway
  4. Looking healthy (skinny) does not mean being healthy
  5. Calories do not equal calories -- where those calories come from matters

Enough of that. Now my personal observations. I've said before, I'm the dad of many -- seven, to be exact, six of them boys.

I can tell you for a fact that sugar impacts the entire life of a child. Too much impacts their concentration, behavior, attitude and energy. I try not to be a tyrant, but with sugar I definitely think a minimalist approach is best, and if they are eating normal food without supplemented sugar at all, I am extremely confident that they will be fine. We know families who eat no sugar at all -- NONE. They are healthy and happy.

I also agree with some of the other comments -- that sugar is addictive. Be careful of this. The child's craving is very unlikely something the body needs; it's more likely what it wants.

On a final note, you can train your taste buds -- I've done it. Eat healthy long enough, and your body will learn to relish the taste of healthy food, and you'll be better off for it. It's especially true for kids.

  • We know families who eat no sugar at all -- NONE. How is this possible? I presume you're referring to only refined sugar. This is hard to square with your list item #2. Either way, that's a draconian restriction. I wouldn't want to deprive my children of confections, which would be depriving them of one of life's pleasures. I just want to find a healthy balance... Thanks for your answer. – Michael_B Oct 14 '15 at 18:38
  • It's true, my friend. One family in particular the dad has severe depression if he eats any kind of grain or sugar. He eats, meat, veggies, nuts, and that's it. Several of the kids have the same issues. It may sound draconian, but compared to the alternative, he said it's well worth it. And for what it's worth, he says he's quite happy in life. – Hambone Oct 14 '15 at 19:09
  • Ah, I didn't know there was a medical condition involved. Thanks for the clarification... I plan to read your answer (and the others) again this weekend when I'm not rushed at work. I'm basically looking for re-assurance that I'm not depriving my son of essential nutrition. I think the control tests suggested in other answers are worth consideration. – Michael_B Oct 14 '15 at 19:15
  • By the way, I've been meaning to clarify... I wasn't suggesting that you deprive your kids of all sugar. In response to the question as to whether you can cause harm by limiting sugar, I meant by way of example to tell you that the answer is no. One can theoretically live a normal, healthy life without sugar of any kind. That said, I do still hold to the opinion that it is "bad" in general, and moderation is a very good thing. – Hambone Oct 16 '15 at 17:38

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