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Help! My child seems to be addicted to junk food.

My six-year-old daughter is addicted to sugar. From morning to night all she wants is junk food and sugary snacks. I find protein bar wrappers stuffed under her mattress. Help!! 

This is the cry of many families these days – sugar, sugar, sugar. To quote Robert Lustig, author, pediatric endocrinologist, and Sugar, the Bitter Truth guru, “We’re eating and drinking dessert all day and night long.”

This is probably true, however, in my experience as a former Montessori directress and practicing nutritional therapist (and to paraphrase a popular tune):  ‘It’s all about the macros, ‘bout the macros, not sugar.’

As soon as I hear that a child’s cravings for sugar is negatively impacting their lifestyle: academically, behaviorally, emotionally or physically, I ask the parents to think of these extreme cravings as an SOS call from every cell in their child’s brain and body, ”I’m starving and I need energy and nourishment now!”

Simple carbohydrates like sugary boxed cereals, muffins, protein bars along with anything white (which indicates that they are stripped of vital nutrients) provide quick and short-lived energy that quickly drains the brain alerting the body’s fight or flight system which is counter-productive to learning – leaving the think tank, muscles, tissue, and all body cells depleted and hungry or “hangry” which is a common description I hear from many parents.

Most of us know this but through mindful meal planning we can help alleviate the sugar cravings.

We begin with balancing and timing of macronutrients throughout the day.                                   

  • Protein contains amino acids that build the body and chemical messengers in the brain for focus, learning, memory, sense of well-being, calmness, impulse control and sleep.
  • Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest so energy levels are sustained to increase physical stamina and brain power. (bonus – sugar cravings diminish).
  • Fats from animal, fish, and plant sources help to regulate the brain so there is a good balance between arousal and calm. Fats and complex carbs promote good digestion and heart health.

Bonus for all sugar aficionados.  You can have your cake and eat it too! A cookie, piece of candy or ice cream will ‘hitch a ride’ as an “accessory” to the macros digesting throughout the day without impacting blood sugar levels negatively once macronutrients from minimally processed sources are balanced to meet an individual’s unique metabolism.

When I was teaching decades ago, I noticed that many students started their day with good cheer and great focus while others struggled from the minute they entered the school yard. Some even sat down on the steps of our Casa Dei Bambini finishing their bags of sugary cereal or muffins (of often adult portions). I learned quickly that if I provided eating foods rich in macronutrients from the beginning of the school day until the end, even the hardened sugar addicts were able to focus and learn. These food opportunities were available to the children starting with a mini-meal they prepared before class and individual food preparation works with the option of inviting a friend.  I videotaped the children assembling, serving, and working with food preparation activities my last few months of teaching. I  held the camera and truly captured the essence of how a community of master chef, well-fed toddlers not only broke bread together (Ezekiel, of course!) but engaged in classroom works attached to the joy and sense of accomplishment.

It is my greatest joy to share these techniques, show how to integrate them in a classroom and home setting, and provide evidence-based nutritional science and education to parents, educators, school administrators and on-site school chefs and meal planners. I cover a lot of ground in my upcoming 4-week nutritional intensive course Nutrition for Learning, Health, and Well-Being. Together we follow Dr. Montessori’s directive to develop within ourselves “the habit of specializing in children’s food.”  The next course begins June 17th.

Jan Katzen AMI, CFP, CN is a former pre-primary Montessori educator. She is now a nutritional therapist working with developmental pediatricians and mental health professionals in Phoenix, Arizona. Jan is a nutritional educator and video presenter in the CGMS Infant/toddler certification course. To learn more about Jan including her books and recently released children’s eBook, “Humdrum Hannah was Eating Junk” visit her website  www.nutritionforlearning.com