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- Who needs it
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- How to get more help
This is your child’s brain:
This is your child’s brain on candy:
And yet….we do this every year on Halloween. Actually, we might even do it every day for the week of Halloween when you count all the school parties and fall festivals. What’s causing this phenomenon, and what counter-attack can you launch?
Your Kid and Sugar – Best Frenemies
Candy is primarily a concentrated source of sugar – glucose and fructose. Once it enters your child’s mouth, a primal instinct takes over. The brain releases a feel-good neurotransmitter called serotonin. Serotonin makes people feel great – happy and calm (yes, I said that – about kids and candy). Serotonin is tightly linked to mood. In fact, a deficit of serotonin is a known cause of depression.
Anyway, back to your kid. Life is good – now that their neurons are swimming in feel-good chemicals your kid is super happy. Until they’re not. Next thing you know, they’re screaming and throwing a fit – they don’t like the color of their shoes, you won’t let them eat all the candy right now, they want to rip off their costume, whatever.
What happened? We were having so much fun trick or treating!
Well, the unfortunate follow-on to the serotonin high is that it comes back down. Did I mention that this is a primal response? We are wired to seek energy-rich foods. Back when food was scarce, this really helped out our species. When serotonin goes away, our brain looks for a way to get it boosted again – with more energy-rich foods – like candy. It looks like this:
Meanwhile, your child’s pancreas. It noticed that glucose from candy got absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a large increase in your child’s blood sugar – and fueling their tantrums. The pancreas responds by releasing insulin. Insulin facilitates the absorption of blood sugar into the body’s cells. If you’re in luck, your child may then transform from werewolf back into human child. Unfortunately, the more common result is that your child now feels….like trash – tired, lethargic, and “over it” with this “trick or treating”. You can carry them home now.
Kids Will Be Kids….
None of this means that your kid shouldn’t be allowed to eat Halloween candy. Let me just note, though, that the habit of seeking serotonin-boosting foods is pretty addictive. One of the leading causes of obesity is believed to be the brain’s addiction to the serotonin that comes from energy-dense foods. Halloween is a special occasion, but you may not want to allow the “roller-coaster of candy emotions” to be a regular occurrence for your kids.
In fact, high added sugar intake has been linked to the following effects in children (a):
- Increased LDL cholesterol
- Increased triglyceriedes
- Increased diastolic blood pressure
- Dental carries/cavities
- Increased fasting blood sugar and insulin levels
Fortunately, there is hope. A recent study found that when obese children reduced added sugars from 27% to less than 10% of calories, they experienced remarkable reductions in all of these health markers – in only 10 days (a).
So, don’t feel like you need to keep your kids candy-free on Halloween – but it’s probably not a good idea to let them feast on their stash until Thanksgiving. Good luck Trick or Treating!
Can I get personal with you for a minute? I love to eat. That's why I usually eat all day long - I guess you could call me a 'grazer'. My snacking habit has always been totally justified in my mind - I've been an 'athlete' of some fashion for the past 18 years, and I've been pregnant and/or breast feeding for nearly 5 years continuously. I also usually snack on healthy food. Further, I've always been able to lose weight while still snacking. And, finally, nutrition 'experts' often recommend snacking! Need any evidence?
It turns out, I'm not alone with my snacking habit. Americans have become snack-o-holics. Americans now snack twice as often as in the 1970s, and consume nearly 1/4 of their energy from snacks (1). They now eat for at least a 15 hour window, with most of their calories consumed after 6:00 PM (2).
In fact, snacking is so big that you can subscribe to receive automatic, custom-picked snacks delivered right to your door!
So, what's the problem? Well....I'll share a personal experience with you. The final year of my dietetics program was pretty crazy and I gained a couple (OK, five) pounds. Yes, I see the irony there. After graduation I endeavored to lose them with my traditional "5-6 small meals/day" approach. The results? Nothing! No progress. Hmmmm.....this got me thinking about the evidence in support of intermittent fasting for weight loss. Studies have shown that fasting periods can be at least as effective for weight loss as a reduced-calorie diet (3). Fortunately, you don't have to go all day without eating. Just a 12-hour fast has been shown to be effective (4). This basically just means you don't eat between dinner and breakfast. In fact, longer periods of fasting can actually be harmful, especially for women (5).
So, could snacking actually not be a great idea? It turns out, there's quite a bit of evidence that it's not:
- Obesity is linked to frequent snacking, and snacking increases total energy intake (6, 7)
- The idea that frequent eating increases metabolism and fat loss has been proved false (8, 9)
- Frequent eating causes elevated blood glucose levels throughout the day (10)
- Lower meal frequency improves appetite control and satiety (11)
However, other studies have shown weight loss and metabolic benefits with snacking (12). In total, the research is mixed on the benefits of snacking. One reason for this fact is that the quality of snacks contributes to their effect (12). In other words, planning to eat something healthy between meals is usually fine. Poor planning, then bingeing on any junk sitting around the office/house is another story.
Now we're faced with a decision - to snack or not? When faced with a conflict like this I always find it helpful to view it through an 'ancestral lens'. That just means I consider the way humans have lived and eaten for the vast majority of our existence. It turns out that hunter/gatherers likely weren't consistently eating 5 to 6 times per day every day. They experienced more of a 'feast or famine' situation, with periods of surplus food (a successful hunt), and other periods of lack (seeking food) (13). This implies that an ancestral approach is to eat less snacks.
So, back to my personal dilemma. I tried my own version of fasting which, literally, just meant not eating between meals, or after dinner. The exception is after a workout. Don't laugh - this alone was really hard for me (read: HANGRY). Until it wasn't.....after a couple of weeks. My appetite adjusted and, surprisingly, so did those stubborn 5 pounds - they disappeared.
Now, I'm not saying that snacking is never appropriate. If you work out at a moderate to high intensity, if you are pregnant or breast feeding (don't judge - my 'baby' is almost weaned and OLD/19 months), if you have a medical condition such as diabetes or a glycogen storage disease, or if you are a child/adolescent, you absolutely should snack!
However, I DO think snacking culture has gotten out of control. Unfortunately, the deluge of 'health advice' encouraging everyone to snack isn't helping.
What about you? Have you bought into the idea that you should snack? Maybe you snack and it works great for you - that's fine! However, if you've been struggling with weight loss, or are looking to improve your metabolic health, consider kicking that snack habit. Make sure you get a full, healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner each day and leave it at that. A few tips:
- Fix WHAT you eat first: I DO recommend snacks in most of my meal plans. This is because switching from a standard American diet to an ancestral diet is change enough. However, if you already have your diet dialed in and are struggling to meet your goals, you may want to analyze your snacking habit.
- Control hunger between meals by following an ancestral template when you eat. Refined carbohydrates and lack of healthy fats causes blood sugar to spike and fall - leaving you starving.
- Practice mindful eating during meals - eat slowly and enjoy your food (yes I have small children and NO I don't always accomplish this!)
- Don't take skipping snacks a license to go crazy at meals.
- If you do snack, make sure it's planned and appropriate, i.e. a post-workout recovery meal.
Try it for four weeks, or take the 4-Week Real Food Challenge if you need support. I'd love to hear how it goes. Good luck!