Don’t beat yourself up over your inkling towards having a sweet tooth. All humans have this woven into their DNA. We’ve enjoyed the pleasure and reward of a sweet taste since the beginning (think honey and native fruits). Ancestrally, sweet often meant safe since very few sweet-tasting plants were poisonous. But where did we start to go wrong with our desire for sweet?
When we started heavily processing sugar and eating too much of it.
Our brains don’t understand abundance of materials since we did not have abundance of anything but human connection and nature until the modern world. Therefore, we are not wired well for self-control when it comes to eating sweets. We did not have to control these urges until more recent times. The good news? Self-control is like a muscle (as the author of Unbroken Brain describes) – the more you use it, the stronger it gets (it being the self-control center of the brain, the prefrontal cortex).
Sugar’s hold on us is deep and will be hard for us to break as a society. The United States was founded on sugar during the slave triangle, making sugar consumption an ethical issue too. Today, sugar is still produced under the veil of “modern slavery” where growers make it look like the farmers and producers are treated well and paid fairly. But they most-definitely are not and are being held in bondage. Sugar is an extremely corrupted industry. Explain this to your children!
Once the Industrial Revolution kicked in, processed sugar became a cheap commodity sure to be found in every home. “Penny candy” was targeted directly at children, costing nearly nothing and providing immense pleasure and reward. During the 1950s, scientists tried to publish research about the danger of sugar, but they were silenced and the low-fat movement started as the silencer. In the 1970s, we decided it would be a clever idea to add high fructose corn syrup to our diet. We now know that this was a terrible idea, but it will take another fifty years to systematically correct this problem.
Fast forward to today. We are in another anti-sugar uprising. And this time we won’t be silenced. We need every home to join us and to not ignore this information. This is a great 45-min documentary laying out the movement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDaYa0AB8TQ
Back to the root problem: we eat too much sugar. Our kids eat too much sugar. If we eat less sugar we will not only feel better, but our mental health will improve.
Mental health? Yes. Sugar provides a speedy sense of pleasure and reward (turns on dopamine and opioid receptors) – much faster than other acts that turn on these same areas of the brain (like human connection, time in nature, senseless laughing, contribution to the greater good). This applies even more to children, whose brains are developing sensitivity on receptor sites. Children need our help controlling their relentless draw to sugar (and screens) so they don’t develop mental health issues. If we allow them to continuously activate the dopamine reward pathway, their brain will become underdeveloped on the serotonin fulfillment pathway. This is what my book, hopefully finished in spring of 2019, is about!
For now, these action steps will put you and your family on the path of sugar disorder recovery. Please understand – sugar is VERY HARD to reduce. It’s culturally entrenched at every turn, whether in schools, grocery stores, media channels, or family member’s homes (like grandparents who love to feed children sugary treats). But that’s OK because you are a leader. Leaders are not afraid of barriers to change. Leaders keep going despite resistance and challenges.
Are you ready?
Action Plan to Reduce Your Family’s Sugar
I define “sugar” as: sugar cane, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, artificial sweeteners, the list goes on. Read more here: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/56-different-names-for-sugar
1. Reduce Processed Sugar by Keeping the Natural Sugars
- I’m not going to state “avoid processed sugar” because in most cases, this is unrealistic. However, if you want to overcome your sugar addiction, you will need to take the addiction seriously and follow an avoid “12 step” program while simultaneously addressing the root of why you developed an addiction (emotional trauma, relationship troubles, lacking fulfillment).
- Try replacing a sugary treat with a piece of whole fruit and a healthy fat (cashews, avocado, etc). Your brain will still enjoy the pleasure and reward, but the fiber in the fruit plus pairing with a healthy fat will lower the metabolic load. Plus, sweet taste derived from whole foods will not overwhelm your brain. Our brain understands foods found directly in nature.
- Switch your sugar out with maple syrup and high-quality honey. Again, your brain won’t respond in such a dramatic way as it does with the legal white powder.
- 90/10! Do your best 90% of the time and allow for 10% wiggle based on carefully-selected sweets.
2. Do not eat sweets at mealtimes, especially at breakfast
- Save the indulgences for when it matters. That little nub of dark chocolate mid-afternoon! Why? Sugar blocks absorption of micronutrients. So when you work hard on preparing a nutrient-dense dinner and then allow your children to immediately follow it with a dessert, the body is unable to absorb much of the nutrients from the meal.
- It’s also best to avoid sugar in the morning and evening. Aim for your daily wiggle room to be in the mid-afternoon. This will allow your body time to burn it off (assuming you keep moving for the day) and will not take away from absorbing nutrients found at mealtimes. Plus you’ll get a little afternoon energy boost.
3. Two to three bites of something sweet is all your brain needs to get the fix you seek
- Your brain produces all the dopamine it’s seeking during the first 2-3 bites of sugar. The rest is only wreaking havoc on your pancreas’s beta cells. So, when you or your children are really needing a fix, only take 2-3 bites. But keep in mind that giving in to dopamine’s pleasure reward pathway takes away from your brain’s ability to produce serotonin, as I explained earlier.
- So it may be best to avoid giving in to the craving by first trying a different action. Perhaps a little walk outside? Or a YouTube cat video session? Or a big gulp of water (dehydration increases sugar cravings)? With children, this is even more important. If parents constantly give in to the short-term gain requests (sweets, screen time, overeating), the brain will develop with severely downregulated (meaning turned off) serotonin fulfillment receptor sites. This happens because if a child rarely produces serotonin because caregivers give in to the immature requests for short-term gains (age-appropriate requests), her receptor sites won’t develop properly. This underdevelopment leads to depression and anxiety and is hard to resolve later in life. Save your children from this lifelong struggle!
I hope this article did not overwhelm you and will instead empowered you to make changes. The new year is upon us. I know sugar’s hold on us all-too-well. I will always struggle with my own sugar disorder due my childhood exposure to sweets. But I want better for my sons. It’s up to me as their leader to set them up for life, at least while they still find truth in my guidance. Perhaps they may stray in their later teen years, perhaps not. I don’t use that moot point as a reason to avoid setting the foundation now when they value my guidance.
My sons will know how to embrace boredom (children tend to ask for sugar when bored – it’s a neurochemical thing that I explain in my book). They will learn how to eat at mealtimes for nourishment AND enjoyment. I am challenged by them every day! Their sweet little selves lack the maturity to avoid their cravings without a guide. I sound like a broken record to them, but it’s worth every bit of the music played. It’s easier to give in, yes. But let’s all join hands and choose the harder route worth taking. Let’s all teach ourselves and our children the value of human connection, playing outside, incessant laughter, and proper food!
Thank you for reading.