Cookies and milk may be a childhood favorite, but a diet too overloaded with desserts may increase a kid’s risk for weight gain and obesity, new research finds. The study, carried out at the University of Michigan, concluded that eating a larger amount of sweets may be a greater risk factor in childhood obesity than consuming salty foods. The latest results may be important when planning a child’s diet and steering away not only from fast food but also from sweets after dinner.

Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States and worldwide, with rates having doubled among kids aged 6-11 from 1980 to 2012 in America. Among adolescents, aged 12-19 years, obesity rates increased fourfold in the same time period, from 5 percent to 21 percent. And while plenty of studies have examined the risk factors behind childhood obesity — including diet, genetics, pregnancy habits, income, TV watching, air pollution, and even excessive antibiotic exposure — this is the first study to investigate how a preference for desserts among toddlers may point them towards weight gain.

“Eating in the absence of hunger is associated with being overweight among older children, but this is the first time we’ve seen this link in children as young as toddlerhood,” said Dr. Julie Lumeng, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and senior author of the study, in the press release. “We found that toddlers’ eating sweet, but not salty, tasty foods after they already ate a filling meal puts children at a greater risk of weight gain.”

In the study, the researchers brought together 209 low-income mothers, then asked them to have their child fast for an hour and eat a filling lunch. Afterwards, the toddlers were offered a tray of sweet desserts like cookies, as well as salty treats like chips, and could eat as much as they wanted. Those who ate more desserts, as well as those who were upset when the trays were taken away, had an increased likelihood to gain weight by the time they were 33 months old. Toddlers who picked salty foods, meanwhile, didn’t experience the same risk for weight gain.

The researchers conclude that as childhood obesity continues to spread, interventions may need to occur earlier on in life — even before the age of three. Children should be able to distinguish between feeling satiated and being full but wanting more desserts, and often this depends on environment and their parents. A recent study found that risk factors for childhood obesity change depending on a person’s age; toddlers are more likely to gain weight if their parents are also obese, for example, while teens’ diets and lifestyles are more influenced by their peer group. As a result, doctors need to approach treatment and prevention from an age perspective. Past research has also suggested that children should be monitored for weight changes starting from a very young age.

“The tendency to eat when you’re not hungry increases with age and could have lifelong implications for weight gain,” Lumeng said in the press release. “We need to explore ways to target this drive to eat before children even turn three.”

There are, of course, ways around a persistent sweet tooth. If you find yourself craving desserts more often than not, switch out the cake and cookies for dark chocolate. Dark chocolate, in fact, is good for you — research has shown that its antioxidants can reduce inflammation, improve heart health, and even sharpen your cognitive function. For toddlers and children who may be too young to appreciate dark chocolate, opt to give them an array of fruit for dessert rather than cookies every day.

Source: Lumeng J, et al. Pediatrics, 2016.