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Sugar and the little ones

Sugar and the little ones

I have now been a father for a grand total of 22 months. The experience thus far reads like an adjectives highlight reel: wonderful, terrifying, joyous, confusing, exhausting, exhilarating and at times even overwhelming. I have never been faced with this depth of love before and it can be very difficult to fully embrace at times. I have never had ‘this much to lose’.

I certainly didn’t make it any easier for myself by creating a project about sugar at the same time. Apart from the general workload of the project, I also feel a sense of ‘knowing too much’ when it comes to sugar and sweetness. So how do I translate and share this information with a toddler who is just weaning off very sweet breast milk, thoroughly enjoying frozen mango pieces and has now learnt to say the word ‘chocolate’ (she has already been known to use it as her first word of the day just seconds after opening her eyes).

This whole topic of sweetness is a fascinating one when it comes to babies and young children. Science now tells us that we have a very primal desire for sweet. There is a part of our brain called the mesolimbic pathway and the theory goes that because sweet things were very rare when we were evolving, whenever we saw them our brains put on a fire works display and said ‘get that into me now because we need it for energy’.

I visited the the team at the Monell Chemical Senses centre in Philadelphia as part of the film and they have shown that sugar and sweetness not only acts as an analgesic to help with pain in babies but that our desire for it is so deep and primal that even babies with under developed brains or disabilities will smile when given sugary water. It directly impacts our reptilian and primal centres.

They also shared with me fascinating research around the importance of what a mother is eating during pregnancy and how this is passed onto the child.

“It’s very clear that flavours and taste get into the amniotic fluid,” said Danielle Reed, a behavioural geneticist at Monell. “Exposure to these flavours, via what a woman eats during pregnancy, may play a role in her offspring’s taste preferences later in life.”

This topic is not new, the importance of what a mother eats during pregnancy has been highlighted in the Dutch Famine Study that looked at babies born after a period of famine during WW2 and more recently by a British medical team who looked at the influence leafy green vegetables had on new born babies in Africa. I am interested to see if, with the explosion of microbiome and gut bacteria research, we will see even more fascinating results in the years to come.

Now all this primal desire and mesolimbic pathway action is fine if you are meandering across the Serengeti but what about when you have to pass the 711 convenience store or the Krispy Kreme pop up shop on a daily basis with a 2 year old on the hip?

I completely understand that many people reading this are now miles ahead of the current food environment. You have the knowledge, want to help your children but have to deal with a world designed by Coca Cola with Willy Wonka as their chief architect. Well fear not, there are ways around it and most importantly, the paradigm is shifting.

Zoe and I discuss this often and we feel that as long as we can take care and control of what we can, then the rest will play out as it does without too great an upheaval. Here are some things that help get us by:

  • The first essential is to make sure your own home is a safe place. Don’t have temptations lurking in the fridge or a cupboard. If the child knows it is there, it will be focussed on like a sniper and only tantrums or surrender will ensue.
  • This means that you as the parent have a responsibility too. Zoe and I have found that our daughter just wants to mimic what we do. All she knows is blueberries or frozen mango as a treat and loves it, just as we do. Zoe will make her own dark chocolate or we will buy some fancy artisanal bitter variety every now and then but when we do, we are open to giving our daughter a try. The last thing we want to do is to give her a complex about it. It’s a treat and she understands that.
  • Some supermarkets (Harris Farms in Sydney) now have free fruit for kids when they go shopping with their parents. What a great way to turn ‘nature’s dessert’ into a reward.
  • For those with babies, remember they don’t know what refined sugar is yet, why not make fruit out to be the most wonderful sweet treat there is. This may even influence their palates (like Zoe) which means the refined stuff will taste too strong as they get older. And remember there is actually no biological requirement for ‘added sugar’ in our diet, we can get all the fructose or glucose we need from natural sources.
  • Now admittedly we haven’t hit the ‘kid’s sugar party circuit’ yet but I take great comfort from David Gillespie and what he has experienced. He has 6 children so has seen it all. He provides a clean house free of sugar and when his children go to parties they occasionally indulge but not as much as the other kids. This is because he describes them as almost being ‘hung over’ the next day. Because they don’t have the sugary treats very often, their tolerance is low and so it really affects them. This means they don’t go quite as hard the next time around.
  • Think about cramming the cupboards with good and nourishing foods instead of a sense of depriving, removing or quitting. Instead of ice cream for example, try blending up some coconut cream and banana and then freezing them into icy pole moulds. They are sensational and your child will not know the difference. You don’t even have to tell them there is no sugar in them, just say it’s a new ice cream. You can try other fruit flavours too, adding vanilla also helps. It is about getting creative and looking at the thousands of recipes online now that still have sweetness but from natural sources.
  • Language is important around children. Zoe and I try not to refer to anything as a ‘treat’, we prefer ‘once in a while food’. The notion of a treat sets up an emotional response, a reward and even glorifies the food. If you make the ‘treat’ too special then the demand for it will only increase.
  • Key point: The American Heart Association recommends just 3 teaspoons of added sugar a day for children. This equates to a 150ml glass of juice or a few gulps of Coke. It isn’t much so keep this in mind when moving forward.

Ultimately, remember that you are in charge, you are the parent and the child will learn from you. And that is the most powerful point I can share from my own small journey. I always catch our daughter sneaking a look at me to see what I am up to. She is observing and taking in my actions. It doesn’t matter what I say, it is what I am doing that counts. This is the key: you need to set the example. Don’t think it is fine for you to demolish a packet of Maltesers in front of your child and then expect them to not want some. Be careful about how you eat and what example you are setting. It isn’t about being a ‘food nazi’ and depriving your child a life of experiences. It is about educating them about the power of food and how it affects their mind and body.

I have had such great feedback from parents who have watched the film with their children. They pause the film in certain moments and really explain what is going on. The children always get it, they are smarter and more perceptive than we give them credit for. Lets give the current generation every possible chance of living a wonderful and healthy life. I believe that is our primary role as parents: to pass on wisdom so our children can learn from our mistakes and live a better life. “Give me a child until they are seven and I will show  you the man” is a famous quote from Aristotle that points to the importance of ingraining the right habits into a child from a young age. The message that food is powerful fuel, with the occasional ‘once in a while food’, should be at the top of the list.

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