Hey Folks! We're excited to welcome back Certified 21DSD Coach Rebekah Reddy. Rebekah's article is part of a series contributed by our Certified 21DSD Coaches. Enjoy! – Diane and Team
If you’ve decided to do a 21DSD, then you likely understand the reasons why sugar doesn’t do us any favors. And if you have kids, especially those too young to read the 21DSD books or understand the science behind what sugar does to our bodies, you may struggle with how to explain why sugar isn’t good for us. When you want to go beyond “it’s not good for you,” then what can you say? This is for you!
This advice is targeted for kids, but it really applies to anyone who is new to hearing about the effects of sugar on their bodies. Tell them all about the sugar monster…and how to defeat him!
I’m in favor of telling kids the truth. And the truth about sugar is that it tastes good! We like it! We want to eat it all the time!
The other side of the truth, though, is that it messes up many of our bodies’ functions, and it is good for kids to hear that, too.
It’s likely that kids have heard about sugar highs and crashes, so tell them that this is only part of the problem with sugar. There are many other things that sugar does within our bodies and minds that keep us from being as healthy as we could be.
Keep it Simple
For kids 2-5, I recommend saying something like, “Other choices are better for growing strong bodies.” With the emphasis on the positive, it helps kids to know which foods are going to help them grow and develop into healthy adults (and sugar isn’t one of them). It also opens the door to a conversation about nutrients and their sources: protein from meat, eggs, and dairy (if your family includes it); healthy fats from nuts/seeds, avocado, coconut, olives, and animal fats like butter, ghee, lard, etc.; and vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables. Depending on the age and interest of your kids, you can really teach them a lot about nutrition while redirecting them away from sugary treats.
I also like to frame sugar and treats as “sometimes foods.” We eat them sometimes, but not all the time. Not every day. Not even every week. Sometimes.
For older kids (ages 6-12 or so), I like to explain the science of sugar in a simplified version. I’m sure you could come up with your own version by reviewing pages 18-31 in The 21-Day Sugar Detox guidebook, but this is what I said to my nine-year-old when she asked for more information about why sugar isn’t good for us.
- Insulin response and blood sugar roller coaster (sugar crash)
- Your body always wants to keep things in balance. When you eat sugar, your body’s sugar level is out of balance, so it releases some hormones to bring down the sugar level. But if you eat a lot of sugar, or eat it all the time, your body has to work extra hard to keep things stable. This can make you have a sugar crash—meaning you’ll feel really tired and grumpy—or you can feel out of control while your hormones try to keep your body working the way it should.
- Nutrient thief
- Sugar gives us energy, but it doesn’t give us any other nutrients. So if we are eating sugary things, we are not eating the foods that give us the nutrients our bodies really need. Sugar also steals nutrients from our bodies: vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium are the biggest ones. So if you eat too much sugar, it is keeping your body from getting some of the nutrients you are eating in other foods. If you don’t have enough of the proper nutrients, you can get very sick.
- Cycle of wanting more because of sugar’s effect on brain chemistry
- When we eat sugar, our brain says, “Yes! I love that! More, more, MORE!” We give it more, which makes us feel good, but then it leaves us still wanting more since there aren’t any other nutrients to balance it out. We just keep wanting more. The craving isn’t ever really satisfied.
You could certainly go into more detail about the short and long term effects of sugar consumption, and for older kids, this may be helpful. But I find that telling kids that how and what they eat now can affect their health today and in the future is sufficient.
I love the roller coaster analogy in the 21-Day Sugar Detox books because it gives a clear picture of the ups and downs of blood sugar regulation. For kids, it has the added benefit of what it feels like to go up (excitement, anticipation, enjoyment!) as well as the down (stomach dropping, unpredictability, feeling out of control) and the end of the ride (disappointment, wanting to do it all over again). Isn’t this exactly what sugar does to us? We look forward to eating something sweet, the first tastes are exhilarating, but then we feel lethargic, heavy, unclear, and sometimes even painful after effects. But then we want to go for another ride!
Make it relatable
Especially for older kids, it is important to teach them how to eat mindfully, and part of that is recognizing how they feel after eating sugary or sweet-tasting foods as well as regular meals. Once we call attention to how food makes us feel, it is often easier to make good choices about what and how much to eat.
When my kids tell me that they don’t feel well, especially if they have stomachaches, I ask them what they ate at the previous one or two meals. Sometimes they will make the connection themselves (Oh! I ate a lot of candy. I had lots of crackers and bread at Grandma’s house. I didn’t eat any meat today.). Sometimes I explain that the foods they choose to eat (especially when they are away from home) will affect how they feel, and then I remind them that making good food choices will give them the energy they need to feel good and grow strong.
It is important not to turn sugar into a forbidden food since this can often lead to overindulgence, bingeing, and hiding food. But it is also important to explain that sugar can be a monster that destroys our health.
Be truthful, keep it at their level of understanding, and keep open the lines of communication about food and how it impacts our bodies and minds. Tell them about the sugar monster so they can learn how to resist his charms!
Rebekah Reddy has been a stay-at-home mom to her three children (two girls, one boy) since 2006, but in her former life she was a high school English/ESL teacher. She holds a BA in English with a minor in Spanish, an MA in English with an emphasis in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), and a California teaching credential. She is also a certified Nutrition Educator, 21DSD Certified Coach, and the author of the blog Half Indian Cook through which she shares recipes and writes about food and culture in her mixed-ethnicity family.
Rebekah specializes in adapting Indian and other ethnic cuisines to be Paleo or 21DSD-friendly as well as working with pregnant or breastfeeding women, busy families, and children. Rebekah’s passion for delicious, nutritious food has led her entire family to improved health and she hopes to support you in whatever health-related changes you wish to make.