The real reasons adults love to give kids sugar


The world rains sugar on my children.

The bus driver offers my child bubble gum.

The teachers offer a cupcake for every birthday party.

The school vending machine is full of junk food; so is the one at the Y.

At camp, the counselors offer candy and a freeze pop at the end of the day..and craft activities like decorating a cookie or making a gingerbread house.

Our kids are invited to birthday parties which include a cake, a candy piñata, and then a goodie bag with more candy.

Why are people incessantly feeding my kids sugar?  

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Most parents like their children to be energetic, happy, and preferably, alive.  However, I see an amazing number of adults who are doing the opposite: hurting the health of our children, by not thinking through the implications of their actions.

Almost everyone acknowledges that obesity is a problem;  2/3 of all Americans are overweight or obese, and 1/3 of all children are overweight or obese.  But for some reason, many of the adults I see do not take the logical next step of changing the way they feed their children (and themselves).

I’ve heard nine main rationales why adults put known health hazards like sugar in front of children:

1) It’s tradition to bring cakes and other sweets to school to celebrate special events.

Fifty years ago, almost any business or social event would include cigarettes, sometimes offered as a party favor.  Now, most educated people would be surprised to see people smoking at an event with children in the room, and shocked if the hosts laid out trays of cigarettes for children to take.  I predict that 20 years from now, we’ll look back in amazement at the amount of sugar that we offered our children.  Tradition is just accreted habits; we can choose new habits.

2) We only serve treats “occasionally” at “special events”.

Mathematically, in a class of 20 kids with 20 birthdays, and including the various holidays and other special events, virtually every school week includes a reason for a party.  There are many other ways to celebrate, e.g., with song, dance, or a craft.  Feeding sweets to children is an example of the tragedy of the commons.   Each individual giver feels happy and bonded to the child, but the aggregate effect is fat kids.  Schools, synagogues, churches, party organizers, meal hosts – all provide occasional treats to make kids happy.   These accumulate into constant exposure.  Ultimately, the children pay the price.

3) The parents insist we serve this food.

We understand some parents are used to eating a lot of sugar, and haven’t had the occasion to step back to analyze if they are doing something in their self-interest.  At the same time, certain parents such as us are insisting you not serve pastries and other sugar carriers.   I recognize that all schools suffer a deluge of conflicting demands.  Your job as an educator is to do what’s in the long term interests of the child and community.  I do not see how raising children to be overweight and diabetic is in their interests.

4) Treats attract the children and make them happy.

There is endless academic research showing that when people or children perform a task for a reward, they lose interest when that reward disappears.  By giving kids candy at school, you’re not teaching love of learning; you’re teaching love of candy.

5) It’s the parents’ responsibility to train the kids to make the right food choices.

Only someone with perfectly obedient children could make this argument.  We don’t have any perfectly obedient children, and neither do our friends.  (If I ever met any such miracles, we’d worry about their ability to survive adulthood.)  Children are bad at understanding long-term consequences and don’t have all the facts they need.  We send them to school and parent them as part of helping them develop those skills.

6) It’s too expensive to serve healthy food.

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”  Serving kids sugar and corn derivatives now is cheap, but creates very significant long-term costs in treating obesity and diabetes.  I’ve written elsewhere on low-cost ways to create a healthyoffice, school, or meeting.  Many parents including us will gladly pay a premium to feed our children real food.

7) We might lose some parents (clients) if we insist on serving real food.

If you take a stand on any issue whatsoever, you’ll lose some clients (parents).  “In the place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader.”  Are you trying to maximize revenues or maximize the quality of young people you graduate?  Plus, if your alumni are healthier, they’ll live longer and have more years to make alumni donations to you.

8) It’s too difficult to reduce the amount of sugar that we serve.

Many schools are strictly and successfully nut-free, even though nuts are dangerous to just a small number of kids.  Sugar is dangerous to all kids; why can’t schools similarly succeed in reducing sugar?

9) Kids won’t eat healthy foods.

In her book Bringing up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman observes that the French believe in exposing their children to diverse tastes, just as they are exposed to diverse art and music.  France has no concept of the ‘kid menu’; the French just feed their children smaller portions of adult food.  And their children end up eating a much healthier diet than Americans do.

Fundamentally, moving to healthier food is a cold start problem; most of us want a virtuous circle in which everyone pays attention to health, but it’s hard to know where to begin.  In our family, I see that our children eat and love vegetables and other real food … until they get old enough to attend school. At school they get cheap processed white bread with flavoring (i.e., macaroni, pizza, bagels, pasta) and they lose their appetite for less processed food.  Many schools that have tried to move to a healthier diet face protests from children acclimated to eating sugar with every dish at home.  However, just because you face a cold start problem is no reason to throw up your hands and do nothing.  Instead, it puts more pressure on educators to educate not just their children but their community.


Our schools and camps are places of education. But education is not just books; education is also nutrition and healthy living.  I am not advocating forcing kids to eat things they are going to hate, but merely providing them with healthy options and offering them fewer temptations to lure them in.

It is up to us, as parents, to protect all children. I know that my childrens’ caregivers care deeply about their children, and really and truly do not understand how they can feed the kids so much sugar.

I’ve listed below some healthy snacks that could be served at school events.    Another option is to order a meal kit from Plated, acompany which makes it easy to prepare home-cooked meals.  Lastly, I suggest use these form letters for your kids’ school, camp, and sports teams.

Selected List of Suggested Healthy Foods for Kids’ Snacks

(If possible, prefer organic, free from artificial colors, flavors and preservatives)

– Any fruits

– Cereal without sugar

– Edamame – boiled soybeans in the pod

– Whole grain snacks – low salt

– Guacamole

– Beans and Bean Dips

– Cottage Cheese with Fruit Pieces

– Any vegetables: Baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, avocados, etc.

– Mini rice cakes—unsalted

– Applesauce (natural, made from whole apples, without added sugar).

Among the cereals I suggest: Arrowhead Mills Sprouted Multigrain Flakes, Alpen Museli Original, Emmy’s Organics Super Cereal Cacao Coconut,Ezekiel 4:9 Almonds, Grape Nut Flakes, I.M. Healthy Original, Nature’s Path Qi’a Chia Buckwheat and Hemp Cereal, Nutbox Unsweetened Pecan Granola (the only granola I’ve ever found without any added sweeteners), and Uncle Sam Wheat Berry Flakes.

For ideas on how to make a healthy food environment for adults, and more suggestions for healthy snacks, see How to Keep the People Attending Your Conference Alive.

( Disclosure: ff Venture Capital is an investor in both Plated as well as Parsely, creator of the Startup Diet.  I previously posted a shorter version of this article at .  And thanks to my parents, including my mom Carol Teten, for being health-aware ahead of their time!  Photo credit: Ruth Hartnup).


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