Advocacy / Food as Reward / Marketing / Sugar

Sugar, Diabetes and Whack-a-mole


Dr. Robert Lustig’s groundbreaking study linking sugar and diabetes should motivate all parents to up their game of junk food whack-a-mole.

The researchers found that in countries where the incidence of diabetes went up, the availability of sugar had increased earlier and in roughly the same proportion. By establishing a dose-response relationship, the study allows researchers to infer that high doses of sugar causes diabetes.

Even before this study was published, more and more parents were getting fed up with the sweet treats coming at our kids from every direction.  There have been too many great examples to mention in one blog post, so I’ve included just a small sampling.  Yoni Freedhoff, a family doctor and parent,  asked Why Is Everyone Always Giving My Kids Junk Food?

Somewhere  along the line, we’ve normalized the constant provision of junk food to  children. It seems no matter how small the ship or short the journey,  sugar pretty much christens each and every voyage on which our children  set sail.

There’s simply no occasion too small to not  warrant a junk food accompaniment. But for me, the strangest part of all  is the outcry that occurs if and when I point it out. My experiences  have taught me that junk food as part of children’s’ activities has become so normalized that my questioning this sugary status quo  genuinely offends people’s sensitivities and sometimes even generates  frank anger.

Registered Dietitian Rebecca Davids speaks for all parents who are sick and tired of playing the junk food whack-a-mole game.

I’m tired of saying no when I should not be put in the position in the first place.  I’m tired of, in spite of my best interests and teaching, that my kids are inundated with the messages of junk food – all the time.

Parents have come to expect they’ll be fighting this battle nearly everywhere they go, but nothing is more disheartening than having to fight it at their children’s schools.  Registered Dietitian Joanne Ikeda addresses the justified frustration parents feel when schools give children food as a reward for good behavior.

Research on child eating habits has shown that foods used as “rewards” become more desirable to children than if they had not been used as rewards…

Giving children candy as a reward is like saying, “Here is something that is not very healthy for you as a reward for being good.” Does this make sense?

If I were a parent whose child attended this school, I would give the principal all this information. If he continued to allow teachers to use candy as a reward, I would notify the superintendent of schools and the board of education.

I can say I’ve “been there, done that” but this issue is too important to be left up to an individual parent at an individual school.  I handle it by giving my kids money or gift cards when they say “no thank you” to food as a reward and sugary treats but I’d prefer to end the onslaught on all our kids.  Instead of each parent fighting this battle individually, let’s unite to stop the junk food, sugary treats and use of food as a reward.  That means knowing what we are up against.  Carolyn Bronstein, a parent and professor of advertising, knows firsthand that deceptive sales tactics are the real battlefront.

Parents must understand the psychology behind food-related advertising to children, get wise to current formats, and initiate consumer action…

Turns out, a generation of kids has been taught that food is fun, rather than fuel…

The most common advertising strategies associate food with fun and good times. being popular with peers, feeling happy, and achieving greater athletic ability…

Younger children lack the ability to understand the advertiser’s intent in pairing food with happiness, and even older kids with greater cognitive defenses are susceptible to emotion-laden appeals…

Add a celebrity endorsement, and now you’ve got a kid-directed food ad on steroids.

It’s time for strong policies in all our schools that address not using food as a reward, healthier celebrations and healthier fundraising.  Need more motivation?  Then read these recommendations from professional health organizations.

From the Yale Medical Group:  Using food as a reward or as a punishment, however, can undermine the healthy eating habits that you’re trying to teach your children. Giving sweets, chips, or soda as a reward often leads to children’s overeating foods that are high in sugar, fat, and empty calories. Worse, it interferes with kids’ natural ability to regulate their eating, and it encourages them to eat when they’re not hungry to reward themselves.

From the Mayo Clinic : As a general rule, don’t use food as a reward or punishment.

From the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry : Do not use food as a reward.

From the American Academy of Family Physicians: Food should not be used for non-nutritive purposes such as comfort or reward. Do not provide food for comfort or as a reward.

From the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Do not use food as a reward.  When children are rewarded with sweets or snack food, they may decide that these foods are better or more valuable than healthier foods.

From the American Academy of Pediatrics:  Food should be used as nourishment, not as a reward or punishment. In the long run, food rewards or bribes usually create more problems than they solve.

4 thoughts on “Sugar, Diabetes and Whack-a-mole

  1. Casey: This is a great post and I especially appreciate the list of medical organizations counseling against the use of food as a reward. That will come in handy for parents – myself included – seeking to make change in their schools or school districts. So glad you’re a fellow blogger now! – Bettina

  2. “Instead of each parent fighting this battle individually, let’s unite to stop the junk food, sugary treats and use of food as a reward.” YES! It can feel like an uphill battle when you’re doing it alone–and we shouldn’t have to take this on ourselves when schools, sports, and churches are places where we’re supposed to feel safe with our families. When I talk about establishing “policies”, people respond with “but we should have the right to…” I’m growing tired of that argument. We don’t have the right to shorten our children’s life spans.

  3. This is a good study to highlight that all calories may not be created equal. The USDA has over-emphasized calories and not focused enough on the types of foods being consumed. Eating 2,000 calories per day of sugar will have a much different affect than eating a diet low in sugar, full of healthy meats and vegetables.

    The study is epidemiological, so it doesn’t show that sugar actually causes diabetes but with these results, I’m sure we’ll see future studies looking for causation rather than simply correlation.

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