Have you ever noticed that there is no Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for cookies?

The USDA has a lot to say about fruits and vegetables, but almost nothing to say about brownies, about cake, or about candy. Don’t you think that’s even a bit unusual?

Sweets and treats kind of stay under the nutrition-discussion radar.  But in reality, sweets and treats shape the show.  Read Snacks: The Gifts That Keep on Giving and The Snack Attack.

Kids now get about 1/3 of their daily calories from desserts, sweetened beverages, salty snacks and candy, but the Food Pyramid doesn’t even have a category for these foods.

Keeping silent about sweets and treats is kind of like keeping your crazy old aunt in the attic: you want people to think she doesn’t exist, but she does.  And pretending she’s not there won’t make her go away.  It’s time to get honest about our eating.

I suppose the USDA doesn’t think we need any guidance about how much cheesecake to consume because we’re doing just fine on our own, thank you very much.

And perhaps, giving us an RDA for sweets and treats would be seen as condoning their consumption.  (It’s kind of like the argument some people use against discussing birth control: don’t talk about it or they’ll actually do it.)

But without any discussion of how much to consume — or rather, setting an actual top-end number—people are left to their own devices.  Look where that’s gotten us.  (And thinking that people will deconstruct their foods to find out how much of the cookie qualifies as grains and how much is added sugar is just plain silly.)

Because the USDA doesn’t have an RDA for sweets and treats, you have to construct one for yourself.

Your kids need a concrete number to shoot for.  Ambiguous advice—limit your intake of added sugar, for instance—is almost meaningless.  “I could have had 6 donuts, but I limited my intake to 4.”  Success!?

The folks at the USDA know this.  That’s why they set numbers for the good stuff. The closest the USDA comes to discussing sweets and treats, however, is under the heading Discretionary Calories —  the extras you can spend once you have fulfilled your daily allotment of “good” nutrients.   Read When Calories Don’t Count.

For children aged 3-7, the USDA recommends that discretionary calories stay between 165 and 170 per day. (Read recommendations by age.)  This translates into about 1 treat per day.

A Birthday Cake Mini Donut from Starbucks has 130 calories; their Chocolate Chunk Cookie has 360.  Even a small box of Goldfish crackers has 280 calories.

The point is not to totally restrict your kids’ access to sweets and treats, but to teach them how to consume their favorite delights in a reasonable way.  Read To Restrict or Not, That is the Question.

The Food Pyramid is so concerned about convincing you to get the “good” food in that it ignores the crap.  But if you do that, it can take over your life.

The whole point of the Food Pyramid is to teach the concept of proportion: eating foods in the right ratios. That’s why the Food Pyramid is a pyramid, not a circle or some other shape.  The pyramid visually represents how we should eat: more of this, less of that.

Teach your children proportion by teaching them to make choices— to eat Goldfish crackers or a cookie, to eat sweetened  yogurt or some ice cream—and you’ll be teaching them to manage sweets and treats, a skill they need for a lifetime of healthy eating.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~