I recently had an epiphany. It’s one of those things that I’ve probably known all along, but somehow it recently just all came together. This realization came to light with a question that my partner has started asking me when I begin to get irritable or edgy (not that you should believe this happens very often). It’s a simple question, but in it lies a stroke of genius: Honey, do you need to eat?
What happens in our brains when we are hungry that takes us from feeling pleasant and stable to feeling irrational, irritable, anxious and angry? And if all this is happening in my logical, relatively mature adult brain, what must a child be experiencing when his/her blood sugar starts to get low—out of control! Well, there is a biological reason for the shift. In fact, the symptoms of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) are frighteningly similar to those of anxiety or anger. Nervousness, restlessness, hyper-vigilance, muscle tension, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, sweating, decreased ability to concentrate…just to name a few.
Glucose (starch or sugar) is the brain’s primary fuel. When the levels of glucose in our body become noticeably low, our brain sends a signal to our kidneys to release certain chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol in order to extract glucose that’s stored in our muscles and liver. These chemicals harmfully trick our brains into a stress response—that fight/flight/freeze that we’ve talked about before. Our hearts beat faster, our muscles tense up, our palms get sweaty and our moods shift, making us irritable and edgy. Repeated release of cortisol is known to cause damage to our brain’s hippocampus, responsible for memory. So, allowing our bodies to get into states of low blood sugar is actually damaging to our brains…and children, whose central nervous systems are still developing, are even more prone to experiencing the effects of low blood sugar and the impact it can have on their developing brains.
The solution to hypoglycemia is fairly simple: eating more often and eating foods that don’t cause drastic spikes in children’s blood sugar. Start the day with protein and continuing the day with high-protein snacks, more often and in smaller portions. Eat foods that are high in fiber, such as vegetables, beans, nuts and fruit. Make sure kids (and adults) get regular exercise or at least some physical activity each day. And pay attention to children’s “problem” behaviors: Does the anger/anxiety happen a few hours after she’s eaten? Does food help decrease the “problem” behavior? Did our breakfast lack protein? Does my child eat a lot of sweets, breads and refined flour (i.e. white breads and pastas)?
The food pyramid has changed from what we once knew. Grains are no longer at the base of our diets and those that we do eat need to be whole, unrefined grains or seeds. Every meal should include some protein in order to maintain a balanced system and prevent drops in blood sugar levels. Check it out and make a few simple changes to adjust your habits accordingly. Most importantly, find alternatives to toxic, high-glycemic, addictive, high saturated fats like donuts, french fries, potato chips and soda. There is nothing about these “foods” that are nutritional or beneficial to children.
In fact, at Appleton Central Alternative High School in Wisconsin, they discovered radical differences in their students’ attitudes and performance when a healthy foods program was introduced (1998-2002). They removed snack and soda machines, served healthy breakfasts and lunches and altered the lunch hour and the lunchroom to create a more relaxed atmosphere. The results were astounding. At a school of high-risk students, discipline problems plummeted to nearly non-existent. Zero expulsions, zero drugs, alcohol or weapons on campus, zero premature deaths or suicides. Test scores went up and students reported that they were better able to concentrate and accomplish academic goals.
A few simple shifts in our attitudes and choices can make a significant difference in kids’ health, behaviors and brain development. It starts at home and it starts with you. When parents model healthy habits, children naturally follow suit. Make it a family affair—plant a garden, make a smoothie, buy a kid-friendly cookbook and pick some recipes. And most of all, enjoy! Eating and being healthy actually feels quite amazing, inside and out.