Calories of Love: Grandparents Push Sugar on Grandkids

Yoni Freedhoff, MD

February 24, 2023

If you have kids, you’re no doubt aware that people are constantly feeding them and encouraging them to eat junk food, primarily candy. They’ll get it from their teachers for answering questions, keeping quiet, or for simply going to school for a whole 100 days.

They (and you) will fundraise with it for nearly every cause, no matter how small. TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube influencers will be paid to push it on them. They’ll even get it from health professionals for getting vaccinated, or, ironically, for having no cavities; or for simply attending appointments. There’s no shortage of encouragement or sources.

When our kids were much younger, aged just 8, 6, and 4, we decided to keep track. For a year, when they came home, free from judgment, scolding, or editorializing, we inquired about who offered them what that day. We then entered their offerings into a spreadsheet and used online food diary databases to calculate the calories and the sugar that were coming their way.

The numbers were staggering. Over the course of a year, between them, our three kids under the age of 9 were given 41 pounds of sugar from over 921 offerings. That’s 97 cups worth.

None of this is unique to our family. If anything, given my publicly expressed advocacy on the constant provision of junk food to kids and my wife and I going out of our way to encourage teachers, dance schools, camps, et cetera to consider moderating their contributions, our kids were offered less junk than were others’.

We came up with this recipe to help steer the organizations and non–family members in our kids’ lives toward rethinking how they use sugary treats:

Step 1: Praise the individuals such as teachers or dentists, ideally with truths about how much they care for their kids, ideally with examples.
Step 2: Discuss the issues with excess sugar, kids, and health.
Step 3: Contrast their caring about kids with their use of sugar to reward, pacify, or entertain children.
Step 4: Suggest alternatives they might consider (e.g., giving out stickers rather than lollipops at the end of a dance class 6-year-olds).
Step 5: Offer to supply and help.

I’d say it worked roughly half the time.

Among the sugar pushers, of course, were family members, and among family members, grandparents, understandably, led the pack and were a large source of the excess sugar that was provided to our kids by people other than their parents. From just our kids’ local pair of grandparents, that year they were offered 7 pounds of sugar coming from 31,340 calories of love in the form of cookies, cakes, candies, ice creams, juices, and more.

With family members, we were able to have deeper discussions, though I’m not sure how effective they were. Our experiences with grandparent-provided sugar sound typical, as was detailed recently in a study looking at provision of “cariogenic” (sugary) foods by grandparents in which nearly three quarters of surveyed mothers reported both the practice and a large percentage also reported the challenge of effecting durable change.

Food, more specifically sugary junk food, is not only constantly advertised to children but is also constantly provided to them whether their parents want it to be or not. This broken food culture is just one aspect of the societal challenge of diet-related pediatric chronic diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and more.

With the ongoing outcry about offering effective medications or surgery to children with obesity severe enough to cause comorbidities that used to only be seen in adults, and where many believe all that’s required is their choosing to eat less and move more, know that if this were as simple as making better choices, this problem wouldn’t exist. Instead, markedly amplifying the very real impacts of biology and social determinants of health on weight is a world stacked against us — and it’s this world, not the individual kids and parents living in it, that deserves our outrage and calls for change.

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Irwin J. Kash MD
Irwin J. Kash