Above is a photo of the mangy munchkin reveling at her first Halloween in costume. Just over 1 1/2, she spent most of the evening in a daze, looking somewhat confused whenever someone placed a treat in her little basket. A year later, when I searched for that same basket to use again this Halloween, I found it in the pantry–still full of the candy I wouldn’t allow her to eat.
Every year at this time millions of parents face the dilemma of what to do with bagfuls of candy that we really don’t want our children to eat but that we feel strangely obligated to allow. After all, we don’t want to let it go to waste. And we don’t want to be the mean parents who keep our kids from enjoying Halloween.
Or do we? I, for one, have no trouble dumping whole baskets of candy in the trash can (it’s garbage anyway) or saying NO to gorging on sweets on Halloween night. I’ve never been one to bend to peer pressure, and when my children’s health is at stake, my resolve is even stronger. I’m known (probably not very affectionately) as the food nazi in my family, monitoring every bite of food that goes into my girls’ mouths. I’ve even leapt across rooms to defend my children from spoonfuls of sugary sweetness that I don’t want them exposed to, and I can only hope that some day my relatives come to respect my concern over the large amounts of sugar customary in our society.
You see, it’s not just a temporary sugar high that impacts our children (or ourselves) when we eat too many sweets. Eating sugar–especially refined sugar–alters our microbiomes in a way that leads to damaging inflammation in our bodies, which in turn makes us susceptible to autoimmune conditions such as autism, ADHD, asthma, eczema, diabetes, heart disease, and even Alzheimers, not to mention everyday illnesses such as the common cold. Having an imbalanced microbiome can even impact our moods, making us more irritable, anxious, and/or depressed. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when we altered the mangy munchkin’s diet in order to clear up her asthma and eczema, her temper tantrums also abated. Terrible twos? Maybe it’s just too much sugar (and refined carbohydrates in general).
So what constitutes “too much” when it comes to sweets? I once read that the human body has not evolved to handle much more sugar than is contained in a single orange–about 35 grams per day (I unfortunately can’t remember where I read this information, but rest assured that I wouldn’t have committed it to memory had I not trusted the source). I was shocked when I first read this because at the time I consumed far more sugar than that even though I ate far less sugar than most of the people around me. I still consume more than 35 grams of sugar on most days, but I try to keep my “overdosing” to a minimum.
With time, I’ve slowly whittled away at the primary sources of sugar in our diet. We don’t eat desserts after meals (my girls don’t even know that word) and we snack on more veggies than fruits (although I do allow up to two servings of fruit each day). We don’t eat breakfast cereals, nearly all of which have some amount of added sugar; in fact, we don’t eat processed foods at all since a majority of them contain high-fructose corn syrup–even foods that aren’t generally thought of as sweet such as ketchup. We don’t drink fruit juice but instead sip on water kefir, whole milk, and just plain water.
As I’ve eliminated sources of sugar, I’ve found that I’ve simultaneously lost my desire for sweets, making it surprisingly easy for me to resist cakes, cookies, and candies, even when they are the centerpiece at a party. Instead, I crave fats, proteins, and whole grains: lightly salted fried eggs, buttered whole-wheat sourdough bread, oatmeal cut with coconut oil and heavy cream. Yum! I do allow myself a serving of dark chocolate every day, but I don’t consider it candy–it’s brain food.
If you think you or your kids could NEVER stop craving sugar, consider this: the microbes in your gut actually send signals to your brain to feed them the kind of foods they crave, so when you start starving the bad bugs (the ones who crave sugar and refined carbs), they will begin to die off and you, too, will stop craving sugar. In fact, “die-off” is a term that refers to the process your body may go through as your microbiome rebalances itself, during which time you may experience headaches, diarrhea (or constipation), or other unpleasant flu-like symptoms as your body expels the unwanted microbes (you can read more about die-off here). This short article by Dr. Raphael Kellmen explains how rapidly our microbiome can adjust to dietary changes–literally overnight!
As adults, we can likely muster the fortitude necessary to do what we know is good for us–but what about our kids? How do I get a one-year-old and a two-year-old to eat well? It’s actually surprisingly simple: you say no to the bad stuff (refined sugars and carbs, processed foods, and vegetable oils) and provide them with the good stuff (whole grains, healthy fats and proteins, and plenty of fresh veggies and fruits–just don’t overdo it on the fruit). It may take a few days for your children to accept your “no” and begin to eat the healthier foods you offer them, especially if they’ve become accustomed to a particular diet, but they WILL learn. We had to go through several days of the mangy munchkin barely consuming a bite of food when we transitioned her away from the snacks that daddy had been sharing with her (chips and candy) and back to eating solely healthy foods, but she eventually learned that no means no and if she wanted to satiate her hunger, she’d better eat what was offered.
Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, in her book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, describes an approach based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for getting children to change their diets. She suggests presenting a small bite of a child’s favorite food, set off to the side, and only allowing it to be eaten once a bite of a healthier food is eaten first. If the child refuses, allow him or her to do so and don’t try to stop any kicking or screaming. Simply restate your conditions and give the child time to decide that they are willing to eat the healthier food in exchange for a bite of their desired food. The next day, mandate two bites of the healthier food before the desired food is allowed. Continue increasing the number of bites of the healthy food required to obtain a bite of the unhealthy food until the child will contentedly eat a full meal of healthy, nutritious food–and then stop offering the unhealthy food altogether. Persistence is crucial because if you break your resolve just once, you will prolong the battle indefinitely. Your child needs to know that you will not cave when they throw a tantrum or use whatever tactic they are prone to use to get their way. Due to the rapid changes that occur in our microbiome when we alter our diets, it shouldn’t take long for children to begin appreciating and even craving the healthier foods. My girls absolutely love sauerkraut, milk kefir, and real sourdough bread, foods that most people consider far too sour and tart to consume, and I believe it’s because their microbiomes have come to crave these rich sources of probiotics.
I suppose some moms might call me mean for not allowing my children to eat sweets devoid of other nutrients (we do eat fruit and coconut puddings sweetened with a tad of honey), but I don’t have a problem saying no when the mangy munchkin asks to have a piece of cake or a cookie at a party, or when the nurse offers her a lollipop after a doctor’s appointment (I bring a small box of raisins instead). I’ll jealously guard the health of my children’s microbiome for as long as I can do so because you become what you eat, and I want my girls to become healthy women whose microbes send them signals to choose nutritious foods. I’ll still allow them to go trick-or-treating tonight, but that bag of candy they come home with will go straight in the garbage–where it belongs.