The Art & Science of Teaching Kids to Eat Right

Effective techniques for raising healthy and happy eaters

The Truth About "Child-Friendly" Foods

Highly palatable food can be addictive.

Have you heard? Ice cream is addictive. Not addictive as in "I just love ice cream." Addictive in the way drugs are addictive.

In a study recently published online by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers showed that, over time, kids who regularly eat a lot of ice cream need to eat more of it to get the same "high."1

You've probably read about this study; there's been a lot of hype about the findings—The Times of India even picked it up.  Still, at least one of the researchers is reluctant to say ice cream is addictive. Instead, he prefers to say that foods like ice cream, "can elicit neural responses during consumption that parallel those seen in drug addiction.  So it has addictive-like properties."2

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This isn't the first incriminating evidence about ice cream to crop up. Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, MD wrote an entire book, The End of Overeating, packed with studies showing that hyperpalatable foods like ice cream—those with just the right amount of sugar, fat and or/salt—produce changes in people's brain chemistry.3

In truth, I don't think it's important to discover whether or not ice cream and other treats are addictive in a clinical sense if people relate to them in an addictive way. 

And I'm not even worried about food addiction if we're talking about adults. If you find yourself jonesin' for some ice cream I figure you can fend for yourself. Kids, however, are a different story. I worry a lot about kids, especially the young ones.

Most toddlers consume huge doses of hyperpalatable foods each and every day. Chocolate milk, sweetened yogurt, chicken nuggets, French fries, crackers, cereal, juice drinks. These foods contain excessive amounts of sugar, salt and/or fat.  And the list goes on. 

By one estimate, 70% of "child-friendly" foods have too much sugar, 23% have too much fat, and 17% have too much salt.4

You might call these items "child-friendly."  I call them gateway drugs.

  • 2-5 year olds get roughly 13% of their calories from added sugars.
  • 6-11 year olds get roughly 16% of their calories from added sugars.
  • 12-19 year olds get roughly 17% of their calories from added sugars.6

That's a trend line if I ever saw one.

It sounds preposterous, I know, to think we are raising a nation of food addicts.  At least one study, though, has shown that the 3-5 year olds who eat foods high in sugar, salt and fat end up seeking out these kinds of foods in order to achieve a "flavor-hit."  In other words, these kids are going for the high.5

Perhaps this is one reason why some kids reject vegetables: "Flavor-hit" foods train kids to like junk (corn chips, not corn; cheese puffs, not cheese, and strawberry ice cream, not strawberries). "Flavor-hit" foods never taste like broccoli. (But they do taste like french fries!)

Of course, I don't believe parents are trying to turn their kids into sugar, salt and fat junkies. They're just trying to get their children fed. Kids like this stuff, and almost every item has at least a few redeeming qualities. The problem, though, is that habits learned in childhood tend to stick around. 

It doesn't have to be this way... but that's a subject for a separate post.

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Sources:

1 http://www.ajcn.org/content/early/2012/02/14/ajcn.111.027003.abstract?sid=c75de1c9-53b9-4b03-bd0a-05f8b075962b, accessed March 14, 2012.

2 http://bodyodd.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/02/22/10480896-can-you-get-addicted-to-ice-cream-maybe-study-shows, accessed March 14, 2012.

3 Kessler, D. A., MD, 2009. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. New York, NY: Rodale

4 Wiley-Blackwell (2008, July 15). 89 Percent of Children's Food Products Provide Poor Nutritional Quality, Study Finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 14, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080714102439.htm 

5 Cornwell, T. B. and A. R. McAlister. 2011. "Alternative Thinking About Starting Points in Obesity. Development of Child Taste Preferences." Appetite 56: 428-39.

6  Ervin, R. B., B. K. Kit, M. D. Carroll, and C. L. Ogden. 2012. Consumption of Added Sugar Among U.S. Children and Adolescents, 2005-2008., Vol. 87: March. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

© 2012 Dina Rose, PhD author of the blog It's Not About Nutrition. Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.

 

Dina Rose, Ph.D., in sociology, has helped hundreds of parents teach their kids to eat right through her blog It's Not About Nutrition.com, workshops and individual coaching.

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