It’s no secret that children like sweet things.

If I give my daughters a cookie, or an ice cream, it’s like Christmas come early. They get excited. They scarf it down. And sooner or later they demand more.

Now that reaction is partially because we don’t eat all that much processed foods or high-sugar sweets in our house. And partially, it’s because children are quite simply hardwired to prefer more intense, sweet flavors than older teens and adults are.

I wrote about this topic a while back on Parentables, discussing the science behind children’s biological cravings for sweet treats.

Because growing children have considerably higher calorific needs relative to body weight, and because calories may have been hard to come by during long periods of our evolutionary history, researchers have suggested children with a taste for sweet foods would have had an advantage over those that preferred blander fair. And that advantage, over time, resulted in a natural selection for a sweet tooth in kids.

But knowing why our children have a sweet tooth is one thing. Knowing what to do about it is quite another. In a world where calorific, sugary foods with little other nutritional value are now easy and cheap to come by, and where fresh fruits and vegetables are sometimes not, we have to use the knowledge of our kids’ inherited palate to our advantage.

I’ve already argued that banning candy is a road to nowhere, but that doesn’t mean you should let your kids eat what they want either. Making sure the cupboards are stocked with healthy, filling alternatives and sitting down to well planned meals that provide a broad range of nutrients and food types including plenty of fruits, vegetables, proteins and whole grains are both crucial ways we can work around our children’s sweet tooth.

Above all else, it’s crucial to watch out for added sugar in processed foods. From juice drinks to yogurts to crackers and breads, many processed foods contain considerable amounts of sugar – often in various forms. Keep an eye on the nutrition labels of the foods you buy. Many plain foods (apple sauce or plain yogurt, for example) will contain naturally occurring sugars. These are not your enemy. What you have to look out for are the additional sugars, syrups and sweeteners which can drastically increase the calories of a particular food. Consider, wherever possible, buying plain, unsweetened products and then adding a little sugar, fruit or jam to sweeten it to taste, while you retain control of the amount you use.

Exploring alternatives to processed sugar, or simply reducing the amount of sugar, in recipes can also be beneficial. For example, the internet is full of recipes which replace some or all of the sugar in muffins or cookies with dried fruits, apple sauce or other healthier alternatives. The gluten-free, sugar-free muffins in this power breakfast are a great example:

There’s some debate in the scientific literature about the health claims made for various natural sweeteners and alternatives too. It’s true that some studies have shown health benefits from eating honey, and raw agave nectar has many of the minerals present in the agave plant. In general, I am a fan of eating foods in as unprocessed and natural a form as possible   it makes sense, after all, that we would thrive on the foods that we have co-evolved with. So in our house, we prefer honey, agave nectar or even just brown sugar compared to white sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.

Nevertheless, sugar is sugar as far as your body is concerned. In fact, honey and agave actually have more calories than table sugar although you can often use less because of their sweet taste and strong flavor. The most important thing to remember is that all sugary foods have, until recently, been a high-priced luxury that none of our ancestors would have eaten in abundance. So we’d do well to adjust our diet to plan for and reduce the temptations caused by our naturally inherited cravings.

Yes, children have a sweet tooth because their bodies need more sugar weight-for-weight than adults. But none of us needs anywhere near the amount of sugar and especially refined sugar that we are confronted with today.

Jenni Grover MS RD LDN is a registered dietitian and co-founder of Realistic Nutrition Partners. She specializes in child, maternal and prenatal nutrition, with a focus on whole foods.

Related files on MNN:

Yes, your child really does have a sweet tooth
It’s no secret that children like sweet things.