The more a child is given the option to eat highly processed food, with refined sugar and salt, the more likely they are to reject healthy food, and to crave the sugar and salt. In fact, refined salt has an eroding effect on the taste buds of our tongue, which further decreases interest in fresh foods and leads to being more dependent on strongly flavoured foods.
There’s an increasing awareness of the links between sugars and health and mood. The science on the subject [ii] isn’t new but what's really helped to increase awareness have been the documentaries like “Fed Up”, “That sugar film” and “What the Health.” According to Dr. Joseph Mercola: “Eating sugar triggers the production of natural opioids in your brain. These hormones aid in relieving pain and are triggered in the same way one would consume illegal drugs (referring to dopamine receptors). According to researchers, your tongue has two sweet receptors in it, which evolved during the early times, when our ancestors ate a typically low-sugar diet. As the years went by, people's tongues were still not able to adapt to sweet treats. This is why when the receptors in your tongue are highly stimulated, it results in your brain sending out excessive reward signals whenever you eat something with sugar in it, which end up overriding your self-control mechanisms. This leads to addiction.”
Sugar craving and limited impulse control is a difficult mix for kids! The best way to limit your child’s consumption of foods containing processed sugar and other toxic ingredients is at the supermarket! If it’s in the house, and your child has developed a sugar craving, you can expect them to nag you constantly! It's unfair to expect children to manage their desires for sweet foods when they're dealing with the combination of such strong cravings and limited impulse control. As children grow older their ability to understand the importance of limiting sugar in their diet, but to younger children being denied food that's so yummy and gives them that huge (be it temporary) high must feel very disappointing to say the least! They need us to hold the loving limits and give them the emotional support they need as they weather the subsequent upset.
Dr Joseph Mercola has collected lots of data on the sugar topic. A go-to article for me has always been Dr Mercola’s website article “76 ways that sugar can ruin your health”, which sounds all very dramatic until you dig into the research on the subject and then most of us discover that this is no exaggeration. [i] Some of the impacts listed include:
- Upsets the mineral relationships in your body,
- Interferes with the absorption of calcium, magnesium, and protein,
- Body changes sugar into two to five times more fat in the bloodstream compared to starch,
- Addictive and intoxicating, similar to alcohol,
- Rapid rise of adrenaline, hyperactivity, and anxiety,
- Leads to difficulty in concentration, drowsiness, and crankiness in children,
- Results in decreased activity in children,
- Reduces learning capacity and can cause learning disorders that could affect schoolchildren's grades,
- Increases risk of antisocial behaviour,
- Decrease in emotional stability,
Healthy snacks. Instead of processed snacks that include added sugar or refined salt, parents can put out plates of nuts, chopped up fruit, carrot sticks, chopped tomatoes, celery sticks, hummus, nut butters, green smoothies and salads. To make salads more appealing, a spoonful of mayonnaise (preferably homemade with extra virgin olive oil) or tahini sauce mixed through it can make a big difference. Some children love grated carrot and/or beetroot in their salad, chopped nuts or seeds. Sautéed onions and mushrooms, cooked in coconut oil, can bring a naturally sweet flavour to salads and veggies.
Sugar cravings can work out to be more expensive than organic whole foods. Although organic whole foods are more expensive, as blood sugar spiking decreases, everyone in the family will likely feel the benefit of decreased food cravings. The nutrition experts describe that most people on a westernised diet are overfed and undernourished, which leads to higher food bills and doctor’s bills! Many families are slowly replacing refined grains with organic whole grains, while also reducing grains and replacing sugar-containing foods and home baking with lower G.I. foods like coconut palm sugar, agave, xylitol, or better still, stevia or erythritol. For my family, I make gluten, dairy and sugar-free bread using soaked buckwheat, psyllium husks, coconut oil, Himalayan salt and stevia and it’s absolutely delicious! We eat a plant-based, super high veg, fairly low carb diet but also make treats like raw food cakes, buckwheat pancakes with chocolate sauce (tahini, dates and peanut butter) and tons of yummy food that’s all free from gluten, dairy, sugar, refined flours or oils and low G.I. I make our own pesto and hummus, sometimes mayonnaise, which all are not only healthier versions but work out cheaper.
You may also like to read "When the Meal Table becomes a Battleground".
Cleansing the diet results in a cleansing of the body, mind and emotions. Many of my counselling and parent coaching clients, especially those whose children have particularly special needs (including ADD, ADHD, ASD, SPD, anxiety or depression) or health complications, have done the hard yards of making radical changes to the whole family’s diet, and have been rewarded with improvements to their child’s health and wellbeing. And indeed eliminating, or reducing sugar, is often a change that brings about the most obvious positive changes. To reduce sugar cravings, the body needs to adjust to lower glucose intake, which generally requires vigilance of foods with a high Glycaemic Index (GI). GI measures how much a carbohydrate-containing food raises blood-sugar levels. The lower a food is on the GI, the lower the effect on blood sugar, hence insulin levels. The human body wants blood glucose maintained in a narrow range.
You might also like to read "When Peaceful Parenting Isn't Working What's Missing?" In it I address some of the more common issues that are often missed including some of the disorders referred to above, the role of micronutrients and the importance of addressing food intolerances, allergies and vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Gradual change is often the easiest on everyone. Working with a nutritionist or a naturopath can be a good idea, they can support you to make a plan and decide whether a more sudden or gradual change might work best. If you don't have that support perhaps you can simply inch by inch bring in more of the truly healthy foods and they’ll slowly replace the ones that lead to spiking blood sugars. As spiking blood sugar highs and lows start to level out, all the emotional highs and lows and heightened irritation and hormones in everyone, young and old should also start to level out! Health can be a complicated mix, yet there are very few health problems that won't at least be helped by reducing the intake of sugar, processed foods and chemical laden foods from the family diet.
Disclaimer: Learning about nutrition and natural medicine has been a huge passion of mine all my adult life, so I always enjoy having conversations about the food-mood connections with the parents I work with. However, I'm not a trained dietician or naturopath and I do always recommend having a consultation with a naturopath or an integrative doctor who will consider your child’s specific needs, medical history and who has the facilities to undertake whatever tests are necessary to make assessments.
[ii] Collection of research studies relating to the impacts of sugar on health; http://www.greenmedinfo.com/disease/high-sugar-diet
Genevieve Simperingham is a Psychosynthesis Counsellor, an Aware Parenting Instructor, an international speaker and the founder of The Peaceful Parent Institute. She can be booked to run seminars or professional development for educators and professionals who work with children. Genevieve offers a range of eCourses, videos, audios, forums and other resources in their Peaceful Parent Village Membership. Join over 88K Facebook followers.