Even though we have come a long way from the cave days, we are still programmed to seek out and enjoy sugar. PHOTO | FILE
As I write this, Baby Boy Mukherjee is teething.
For the discomfort he must feel, I give him homeopathic medicine, which essentially comes as a semi-sweet powder.
Even though he cannot talk, as soon as he sees the packet containing what I am about to give him, he makes his joy known with happy babbling. And once he has had it, he starts clapping away.
Even though we have come a long way from the cave days, we are still programmed to seek out and enjoy sugar.
That is why I found an American report in the English journal, Addiction, so interesting.
The researchers claimed that children who have an extra-sweet tooth could be depressed and are likely to have a higher risk of future alcohol problems.
No doubt, your first response will be to wonder whether children, with their carefree lives, can be depressed.
This is a matter of debate. However, a number of health professionals, me included, believe that lack of certain neurotransmitters can predispose children to mental conditions such as depression, not to mention behavioural difficulties.
So, what does an extra-sweet tooth have to do with this? Well, it appears that sweet taste and alcohol trigger many of the same reward circuits in the brain (involving the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin).
The study in question used this to show that liking for intense sweetness was greatest in children who had both a family history of alcoholism and reported depressive symptoms.
Amazingly, these children preferred a drink that was more than twice the sweetness of a typical fizzy drink (about 14 teaspoons of sugar in a cup of water) and, unlike the “non-depressed” children, their tolerance to pain or discomfort was not increased with the sweets.
Restrict or give freely?
While some commentators have pointed out that the preference may have to do with upbringing as opposed to genuine chemical differences, I find it remarkable that a test that seems so simple could be so effective.
At my clinic, of the “heavy” drinkers I have seen (some may call them functional alcoholics), most of them have a very sweet tooth.
So, assuming your child is exhibiting this “symptom”, what can you do? It is true that human beings have evolved to like sweet stuff. However, this preference can either be fostered or suppressed.
Let us take option one: using sweets as rewards. Offer children anything desirable as a reward and they are likely to want that item more than they normally would.
The same applies to sweets; if you give them sweets freely, they will likely over-overindulge.
The other option is not to use sweets as rewards at all. While this might make sense (why would you give your child something inherently unhealthy for being good?) children who are not given sweets as rewards tend to crave them even more than those who do.
This is because they see it as a forbidden fruit.
When these children are given free rein, they eat even more sweet stuff than they would have had they not been restricted in the first place.
So, what is a parent to do? I would say that while rewarding your children with sweets is acceptable once in a while, ideally, the “treat” should be in the form of some sort of dessert, and then be served as part of the family meal.
This way, it is not really seen as a treat and not forbidden either.
Interestingly, this is the same approach a number of European countries adopt for children and drinking.
In countries where young adults have a glass of wine with their parents, binge drinking is less.