My 12-year-old craves sugary foods and drinks all the time. Could she be addicted to sugar?

My 12-year-old craves sugary foods and drinks all the time. Could she be addicted to sugar?

Ellen Rome, M.D.

Ellen Rome, M.D.

Dr. Ellen Rome is a board-certified pediatrician who was among the first in the U.S. to be board certified in adolescent medicine. She... Read more

You bet! With regular exposure, the brain can get hard-wired to seek more and more sugar. Similar to other addictions, chemical messengers in the brain get habituated to seek the feel-good mood boost sugar provides.

The vicious cycle of sugar addiction begins with the physical reactions that occur when we eat sugar. Eating any type of sugar (which includes cane, high-fructose corn syrup and refined carbs, such as white flour and white bread) triggers a spike in blood sugar levels. To counter this, the pancreas secretes insulin, which in turns causes blood sugar levels to nose-dive. This sudden and severe drop can result in crankiness and fatigue, which then prompts the sugar junkie to find more sugar and begin the cycle all over again.

To break her sugar addiction, you need to take a look at her diet and see where you can substitute sugar for something healthier. So if she's swigging several glasses of juice a day, swap it for water with slices of fruit in it. Or, encourage plain water with a side dish of fresh melon, strawberries or raspberries for a dose of vitamins, fiber and antioxidants.

If soda is her weakness, switch it out for flavored seltzer. A splash of juice for a little taste is fine (just be sure she's not topping it off with too much juice). Lemon and lime can add flavor, or you might even plop a frozen strawberry or raspberry or two in for added taste. Switching from sweetened pop to diet soda shouldn't be encouraged. Overconsumption of diet soda has been linked to weight gain because artificial sweeteners do not satisfy the hunger center, which can lead to overeating.

If sugared candy is doing her in, ditch the sweet treats for a handful of dark-chocolate-covered almonds to see if that satisfies.

Whenever possible, swap out white-flour foods for 100 percent whole-grain ones. Compared with 100 percent whole-wheat flours and grains, processed white flour has a higher sugar content and far fewer nutrients since the nutrient- and fiber-rich grain has been removed.

Ultimately, remind yourself that you are improving your daughter's health by helping to retrain her taste buds and wean her off sugar. While you shouldn't assume the role of food police (which doesn't tend to work), during this process consider it your job to help be a role model for better choices and offer her encouragement about making great choices.