The less sugar children eat, the less they are likely to crave it. (iStockphoto)

A little sugar now and then isn’t a big deal to most children. But sugar has been shown to have an effect similar to an addictive drug, and many kids across the United States are in fact addicted to it. Sugar affects children’s short-term behavior and moods and also can seriously affect their long-term health. Here are some ways to help kids cut back.

Prevent unrelated cravings

Sugar addiction causes tangible cravings, but so do other entirely unrelated factors, such as low blood sugar and thirst. So begin by dealing with them: Make sure kids always get enough protein, healthful fats, other nutrients and water to keep their energy at optimum levels.

And watch out for social or psychological conditions — boredom, emotional issues, teenage hormone surges — that might lead to overindulging.

Cut the culprits

Soda, energy drinks and sports drinks make up 32 percent of an average child’s sugar intake, followed by desserts at 18 percent, fruit drinks at 15 percent, candy at 7 percent and ready-to-eat cereal at 6 percent. The less sugar children consume, the less they are going to crave it.

Improve breakfast by adding protein and fresh fruit. Switch to 100 percent whole-grain cereal or toast. Use the weekend, rather than a school morning, to introduce a lower-sugar pancake or a new egg dish, as you will probably have more time to cook and to ride out complaints or questions.

Stock the fridge with healthful snacks, and don’t regularly buy sugary treats and then tell your kids they can’t have them. It is better to go out for ice cream occasionally than to have a tub of mint chocolate chip in the freezer marked off limits. But do still bake cookies with them once in a while.

Divorce dinner from dessert — sweet stuff should never be a reward for eating a healthy dinner. Pick one night a week when the family enjoys dessert together, and allow your children to take turns choosing what will be served. Spoon out appropriate portions, let the children have seconds if they are truly still hungry, and do not judge the amount they eat. Also avoid overeating yourself, and don’t express feelings of guilt after eating.

And watch out for hidden culprits in prepared foods. Read labels on these main offenders to be sure they are low in added sugar: yogurts, energy bars, ketchup, sauces (spaghetti, barbecue), salad dressings, breads, crackers, peanut butter, infant formula and drinks.

Retrain addicted kids

Our tastes for overly sweetened flavors are learned, which means they can also be unlearned.

Designate the number of “sometimes foods” (sports drinks, ice cream, cookies, hot chocolate — anything with added sugar) you believe is appropriate for your kids to consume in a day or week. If one a day or three a week sounds right to you, that’s fine. Just allow the children to choose what and when, and do not judge them. Your children should be in control. When they use up their daily or weekly allocation, they have to wait for the next day or week. Let them also choose the dinner menu one night a week, the healthy snacks they eat and what gets packed in their lunch. This way they learn to control the food they eat in a balanced way.

Remind kids there will always be another chance for something sweet. If they are afraid they won’t get another Oreo for a long time, they are more likely to eat past the point of satisfaction.

If a child has an acute problem with sugar, it is okay to incentivize him or her to kick the habit — with a reward that isn’t food. We are all motivated by an incentive, be it a bonus, a paycheck or kudos for a job well done. Once your child actively agrees to kick his or her sugar habit in return for an established prize, stock a healthy kitchen and start the child on this plan.

Set a good example

Enjoy all food with your children, never express guilt for enjoying a dessert, and model moderation. It is important to get on the same page as your spouse and be consistent with your food rules and messages. Stay neutral, and do not judge your kids’ choices or mistakes. We are all drawn to desserts and sweeter items at times, and kids are no exception. Lastly, support and encourage children when they make good choices.

Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a D.C.-based nutrition education company, and ­
co-author of “Super Food Cards,” a collection of healthful recipes and advice.