Ask Amma

Fruits vs. added sugar

In Why on 14 June 2011 at 3:20 pm

My dad says I am being silly being so strict about no added sugar while my daughter gobbles tons of whole fruit ! Any good argument other than the fact that fruits contain other nutrients and not just fructose too?:)

– mom of a 2.5 year old in Dallas

Obviously whole food is better than processed food. Because whole foods take time to chew, the body has time to feel full before one can overeat. Fruits contain fiber, and innumerable nutrients, not only the few that appear on the labels of packaged food. Michael Pollan writes in In Defense of Food that many nutrients that are available in the fresh, whole form are not absorbed from the processed versions (juice, jam etc). Nutrients are absorbed in synergy, chewing, etc. I have never heard of "overdoing" whole fruit but if you are concerned, I would look for foods from other food groups, rather than added sugar to balance the diet.

Most people, and most of our families a generation or two ago, eat food that was neither packaged nor processed, other than the processing done at home. Because this takes time, it is naturally limited. Now when processed sugar is far cheaper than whole foods, and packaged food is everywhere, how would we limit it?

There are a variety of approaches to food. Let me share my approach and why I believe it worked well in helping us have not only healthy eating habits but also healthy attitudes about food.

What I did was to avoid added sugar and refined grains entirely in the first few years of life. In the first year I avoided salt as well, This allowed my daughter to taste food on its own. Using these years to introduce a wide variety of foods, as close to their whole form as possible, set the foundation for a healthy and balanced diet. Introducing processed / sugary foods after she had years of experience with whole foods gave the whole foods an advantage – she didn’t like white bread or white rice – and allowed her to understand that different roles different foods played in our diet.

In the initial years we also avoided packaged food almost entirely – exceptions started with puffed rice / puffed millet and grew gradually. But mostly we cooked from scratch. Parents who followed this approach have told me that their child rejected "baby food" from the jar though when they made the same thing at home the child ate it quite happily.

By the time I was prepared to introduce refined / added-sugar foods, I was confident that my daughter and I could have a meaningful conversation about

– roles of a wide variety of foods
– limiting intake of refined foods e.g., after meals, not every day, not too much

– need to brush teeth (or in a pinch, eat a carrot / celery / apple) after sweet / sticky foods.

Above were guidelines we used in our family, yours could be different – the important thing is that you be ready to explain your guidelines, be answerable (why?) and also be flexible. [And feed them before birthday
parties ;-)]

In my experience, the "strictness" in the initial years makes restrictions obsolete in the later years. Incidentally I found the same approach effective with media as well.

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