The Parent’s Dilemma – Happiness or Health?

“Can I have a soda/cookie/candy mom?”

As a parent, we are faced with this dilemma almost daily – we know highly sweetened foods are not healthy, but our kids want them, and we want to make our children happy.  And it’s ‘just a cupcake,’ (soda, or a candy bar), right?  Why not indulge our children once and a while?  The issue is – sugar is highly addictive, so ‘once in a while’ quickly becomes ‘daily.’  And sugar is hidden in many foods, that it adds up very quickly over the course of a day.  The average teenage boy has about 1/2 cup of sugar each day, which is about 1/5th of his total energy intake.  Sugar is highly addictive, so the more sweet foods a person consumes, the more they want, creating a self-fulfilling cycle.

Sweet foods do make our kids happy – but only for about 15 minutes.  When we eat something sugary, it spikes our blood sugar, which creates an initial sense of happiness and energy.  We’ve all seen kids ‘bouncing off the wall’  after a sweet treat.  But the feeling of happiness that sweet foods create is fleeting – what goes up must come down. When blood sugar comes crashing down, happiness can turn to lethargy, moodiness, and even sleepiness and anger.  So what does a kid reach for when their blood sugar is low?  More of the food that will bring it soaring back up!  This is what I refer to as the Sugar Roller coaster – kind of like getting on a roller coaster that won’t let you get off – you are left with a sick feeling.  When we have this sick feeling all the time, we don’t know what it feels like to feel good.  Additionally, when our kids’ blood sugar spikes up and down over and over, it contributes to serious health problems like insulin resistance, heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and more.  One third of all kids is now predicted to develop diabetes in their lifetime (1 in 2 of kids in predominantly Black/Hispanic neighborhoods).  Kids who eat highly processed diets are also more likely to receive an ADD diagnosis according to an Australian study.

When I was a kid, I loved sweets and treats.  I was also a picky eater, so I did not eat a lot of fresh vegetables and fruits.  As a result, I was overweight, had a sluggish digestive system, and experienced moodiness.  Now I know that food fuels our bodies, mood and our brains.  Now when I am considering what to eat, I not only think about how it will taste, but also how it will make me feel.  When I talk to kids about nutrition, I teach them about “intuitive eating,” asking them to think not only about how food tastes, but also how it makes their bodies’ feel and function – 10 minutes, 30 minutes, and even hours after they eat it.  Often when I tell adults that I teach kids intuitive eating – they say “kids can’t really get that, can they?”  And I always respond – “You’d be surprised, kids do understand,” because many kids do understand and get the concept.

As a parent, it is our job to teach our kids’ values – being polite, responsible, independent, respectful, to have a strong work ethic, and be thoughtful.  But we often don’t think about health as a value and a skill that can and must be taught.  I think Taylor Mali said it best in his poem, An Apple a Day is Not Enough.

Still struggling with the dilemma of wanting to give your kids what makes them happy?  I want to make my kids happy, and feel torn when my kids want a sweet treat. I give in to their pressure sometimes, we certainly do not have perfect diets all of the time.  But we do strive to have a better diet overall, in the big picture.  The book  Too Much of a Good Thing, Raising Children of Character in an Age of Indulgence, written by New York Times best-selling author and Child Psychology professor at Harvard, Daniel Kindlon, has helped me realize that giving kids everything they want is a bad idea.  Dr. Kindlon asserts that indulging our kids creates “kids that are prone to self-centeredness, depression, anxiety, and anger.” I loved what Michele Woodward of Arlington, VA wrote about his book:  “For those of us fortunate enough to be able to give our children a lot of advantages, this book reminds us that our job as parents is not to be indulgent, but rather to set and enforce limits so that our children can develop their own sense of self-worth and self-esteem.”  I highly recommend Dr. Kindlon’s book for all parents, it applies to so many areas of our kids’ lives, not just choosing healthy foods.

I am not suggesting that a kid should not be allowed to eat the birthday cake at the birthday party – in my mind, that could serve to backfire and create resentment and social isolation.  In general, I believe that it is the choices we make on a daily basis that impact our health the most. So as long as our diet is generally healthy most of the time, that the occasional treat is not an issue.  What does become an issue is when kids’ diets are predominantly processed, packaged and sweetened, and seriously lacking in fresh fruits and vegetables.  Looking at the big picture, we need to increase the healthy foods, and decrease the “splurge” foods.  And in fact, there are even recipes for cupcakes and other sweets that are healthier, so not all cupcakes are created equal.

But back to the dilemma at hand – should parents give their kids’ health or happiness?  In the end, I think the healthy choice is the happy choice.  The happiness that comes from eating a sweet treat is short-lived, followed by a crash that makes kids feel grumpy, sad and tired. So by indulging our kids with sweets over and over, in the grand scheme of things, we are making our kids’ sadder and setting them up for more serious health consequences later in life. And according to Dr. Kindlon, by not giving our kids everything they want, we are also building character and self-worth.

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Article written by Sara Vance, a Nutritionist in the Encinitas, CA area.

Sara offers nutritional counseling, School Assemblies, kids healthy cooking classes, and more. Sara works with each client to develop an all-natural foods and supplement based approach to optimal health.  Visit ReBalanceLife.com for more information.  Friend Sara Vance at ReBalance Life on Facebook.

©2011, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.