By Michelle Arington
As we move into the New Year, everyone is busy making (and breaking!) their New Year’s resolutions. After the over-indulgence of the holidays, we are ready to lose weight, get fit, eat healthier and ditch the sugar. As a health coach, I see many clients that want to improve their lifestyle and eating habits but feel controlled by their cravings for sugar. Many of them are aware that their children also would benefit from a healthier diet, knowing that they eat too much sugar. Let’s face it. Sugar is everywhere and in just about everything we eat. So how do we let it go?
Almost everyone craves sweets. Sweet is the first taste that human beings crave from birth. The sweet taste of our mother’s milk is imbedded in our brains and imprinted in our hearts. Sugar dominates every holiday, birthday and celebration. Sweets are used as a reward, a remembrance and a symbol of love. Consumption of sugar stimulates the release of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin. Serotonin regulates mood, lifts depression and reduces anxiety. The taste of sugar releases endorphins, neurotransmitters produced in the brain that serve to calm and relax us and reduce pain. It’s no wonder we reach for a sweet treat for a little lift or a simple reward.
Yet, sugar has been known to contribute to a wide variety of health issues. Excess sugar consumption depresses the immune system and our ability to fight off infection. Studies have shown that sugar reduces the ability of white blood cells to kill germs and bacteria in the body by 40-50%. Sugar contributes to mood swings, depression, anxiety, headaches, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, obesity, inflammation and diabetes.
How do you know if your child is getting too much sugar? According to the American Heart Association 2009 guidelines, preschool age children eating 1200 – 1400 calories a day should have no more than 4tsp. (1 tsp. = 4.2 grams) of added sugar daily. Children ages 4-8, eating 1600 calories should eat no more than 3tsp. a day. The maximum for pre-teens and teens eating 2000 calories, should be 5–8tsp, equivalent to one 12oz. can of soda. Yet, a study conducted by the AHA found that children as young as 3 were typically consuming 12tsp and children 4-8 were eating an alarming 21tsp a day. The same study discovered that teens consumed an average of 34 tsp. a day. Recent studies conclude that most Americans easily consume 150-170 lbs. of sugar a year!
Reducing the amount of sugar in your child’s diet can greatly increase his ability to fight off colds and infection and reduce the incidence of hyperactivity, anxiety and mood swings. Here are 7 ways to eliminate cravings for simple sugars and improve the physical and emotional health of your child and your family.
#1. Postpone the introduction of sweets to young children. Limit or avoid their exposure to candy, soda and sweetened foods and drinks of all kinds. Soft drinks are America’s number one source of added sugar. Even fruit juice is too sweet. Dilute orange, grape and apples juices. Choose juices that are 100% juice, no sugar added.
#2. Drink water. Sometimes sweet cravings are a sign of dehydration. Increase the amount of water your child drinks. Offer a glass of cool water when they are asking for a sweet treat and wait a few minutes to see what happens.
#3. Eat more sweet vegetables and fruit. They are packed full of fiber, helping your child feel full and slowing down the rate of sugar absorption. Add apples and dried fruits, like raisins and cranberries to oatmeal, muffins or mixed nuts to curb a sweet tooth. Sweet vegetables are soothing to the body and energizing to the mind. Adding sweet vegetables like corn, carrots, sweet potatoes and winter squashes to the daily diet helps to crowd out less healthy, sweet foods.
#4. Avoid artificial, chemical sweeteners and foods with added sugar. Instead look for and prepare foods with raw local honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, dried fruit, or barley malt.
#5. Get active. Take a walk, ride a bike, dance, do some yoga. Exercise balances blood sugar levels, boosts energy, reduces stress and releases endorphins.
#6. Get more sleep, rest and relaxation. Even children get stressed. The demands of school, homework, and extracurricular activities, social and family life can be a lot for them to handle. When you are tired or stressed, your body will crave energy in the form of sugar. These cravings are often a result of being sleep-deprived, going to bed late and waking up early. Children ages 3-12 need 10-12 hours and older children, ages 12 – 18 need at least 8-10. Sleep deprivation cannot only lead to sugar cravings but can increase behavior and mood issues and daily fatigue.
#7. Eliminate fat-free, low-fat processed foods. These foods contain high quantities of sugar to compensate for lack of flavor and fat. This sends you and your child on the roller-coaster ride of sugar highs and lows. Read labels and check the amount of sugar per serving. Choose healthy, whole food snacks over processed foods whenever possible.
Take these simple steps and notice the difference in yourself and your little one. If making these changes seems overwhelming, a qualified health coach will help you sort this out one step at a time, helping you to achieve the balance and awareness necessary for a lifetime of health and wellbeing.