One of the most important things to teach children about eating in today’s obesogenic environment is to pay attention to their internal hunger cues instead of eating based on other influences, such as food advertising, food as a reward, emotional eating, or eating just because food is offered or available. I started these lessons on mindful eating with my daughters when they were very young and one of the books I would read to them was called Too Much Fun.
The premise of this book is that too much fun is no fun at all. Max thinks that he can never get enough desserts, carousel rides, or flying on Ord’s back. But, when confronted with a full-size volcano which spews ice cream instead of lava, even Max can see that there exists such a thing as too much.
One of the lines from the book was “More, more, we want more, ’cause that’s what more is for.” This led to a discussion about how different foods can send different signals to the brain about eating too much. The foods that send the eat too much signal, we called “want more foods” and they should be treated with caution in order to avoid overeating.
That is also the basic premise of the book Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss which reveals how companies use salt, sugar, and fat to addict us. It quotes Nora Volkow, who directs the National Institute on Drug Abuse and is one of our nation’s foremost experts on addictive behavior.
Clearly, processed sugar in certain individuals can produce compulsive patterns of intake and in those situations I would recommend you just stay away. Don’t try to limit yourself to two Oreo cookies because if the reward is very potent, no matter how good your intentions, you are not going to be able to control them-which is the same message we have for people addicted to drugs.
The research on food addiction was also discussed at the 2013 American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting. Kelly Brownell spoke and he is leaving the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University to become the dean at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University this summer.
He said these kinds of questions should not focus on food addiction, which is experienced by a small percentage of the population and goes to the morality or pathology of the individual, but instead on “food and addiction because [that] destigmatizes the person and puts the focus on the substance instead.”
“If there is an addictive impact of food on the brain, what does that say about the accountability of the food industry for intentional manipulation of ingredients, what kinds of advertising should be permitted, and what products should be permitted for sale in schools?”
Brownell also remarked that growing literature indicating that processed foods negatively affect the brain equals a “game-changing concept … because if it’s true that food can hijack the brain, you can imagine how parents are going to feel about this when their children are exposed to these ‘substances.’ It could come down to helping us protect children’s food environments, much like we try to do with tobacco and alcohol.
As the science develops on food and addiction, more parents are starting to question what this means for raising children. Dr. Peter Attia wrote about his four year old daughter eating ice cream.
What does amaze me is how it seems to override her senses. That night, she had a big plate of salad, a bowl of soup, and even a large slice of pizza (if you’re wondering, I had 3 large plates of salad with chicken). She claimed to be absolutely full, and I believed it. But when I brought that ice cream out, it was like she had never seen food in her life. She simply devoured it. The best part? When she looked like she was done, I said, “OK sweetie, looks like you’re done, time to get going…” only to have her say, “No daddy! I’m still finishing the chocolate broth!” She literally left not one drop of melted ice cream (“chocolate broth”) or one single sprinkle or one single crumb of Oreo behind.
This does not seem “normal” to me, and for this reason I guess I refuse to accept, personally, that sugar is just a benign empty calorie. But, one day our daughter will have to decide for herself where she lies on the distribution and how much she cares to do anything about it. Until then, we’ll save the chocolate broth for special (and not too common) treats…
“What dose of sugar can I (or my child) safely tolerate to avoid chronic toxicity?” The goal should be to figure out your toxic dose, then stay well below it…But with sugar, at least for many of us, the toxic dose is easy to consume, especially in world where sugar resides in almost everything we eat.
Limiting a child’s sugar consumption is easier said than done as another parent, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, wrote about in a piece about parental prerogative.
And if you’re an unquestioning pusher yourself maybe it’s worth a reminder that while it’s a parent’s prerogative to give their children candy, it’s their parents’ prerogative, not yours.
This reminder is even more critical as the research on food and addiction shows highly processed junk food can hijack children’s brains.