Are Sugar-Loving Kids Likely to Grow Up Alcoholic and Depressed?

Kids may react differently to sugar, depending on their family history or depression symptoms.

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Kids like sweet things, a preference that starts with breast milk and continues on to lollipops and birthday cake. But for some children, intense cravings for sweets may be associated with a vulnerability to alcoholism and depression. And that same vulnerability may also make it harder for some children to cut back on sugary treats. 

That news, from research published in the journal Addiction, was enough to get this mother of a candy-loving child hustling to call Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia who studies children's food preferences. Mennella led the study. Since the story broke, Mennella has been deluged with E-mails and calls from people saying, "This sounds like me! This sounds like my family!" 

Of course, I was hoping my sweets-loving child is not doomed to alcoholism and depression. Don't panic, Mennella told me. The biological preference kids have for the taste of sweet probably evolved to guide them to calorie-rich foods at times when they are growing quickly. But her study of 300 children found that those with a family history of alcoholism and who show symptoms of depression were much more likely to favor really intense sweetness; they liked a sugar-water solution that was 24 percent sucrose, about twice as sweet as a typical cola. Kids without a family history of alcoholism or symptoms of depression preferred an 18 percent solution. 

Studies have also shown sugar actually helps relieve pain. But the children who were depressed didn't reap that benefit. The nondepressed children were able to hold their hands in a cold-water bath 36 percent longer if they had sugar water in their mouths, but the sugar didn't affect the amount of time that children with symptoms of depression tolerated the cold bath. The finding that some differences in children's response to sweets may be linked to alcoholism and depression makes sense, says Mennella, since sugar and alcohol both activate the same pleasure-generating circuitry in the brain. 

Just because a child loves sweet things doesn't mean he or she will be come depressed or have problems with alcohol, Mennella stresses. But the research could give us deeper understanding of our children's relationship to sugary goodies. "One of the take-home messages for me [is that] it's going to be a lot harder for some children to reduce sweets than others," she says. There may even be benefits for these kids—improved mood, say—that make candy dandy for them in ways we never imagined. "When you see this in children," she says, " It makes you want to uncover the mystery even more." 

So, we don't yet know if sweet cravings could be a marker for a vulnerability to alcohol and depression. And we don't know if eating candy might help or hurt children with a family history of depression and alcoholism. But knowing how common these problems are—about half the children studied had a family history of alcoholism, 25 percent had symptoms of depression, and 12 percent had both—makes me look at that mile-long candy aisle at the drugstore in a whole new way. Mennella hopes to delve further into the question of sweets, alcoholism, and depression, with the hope that we'll someday come up with strategies that will let us manage our children's cravings—and our own—to the best and most healthful ends.