Making the Food/Mood Connection: For Our Kids and Ourselves

by Red Pill Mama · 6 comments

in Health+Wellness,Nutrition+Food

This conversation started here after my unsuccessful attempt to get our esteemed readers to submit some candy-free Valentine ideas (see, that post was good for something).  If you read that post and the comments, you’ll see that one of our readers has already been making the food/mood connection, understanding that sugar and refined carbs are producing some very real (and very undesirable) behavioral effects in both herself and her kids.  In thinking about this, I realized that my own behavior and general mood (my yelling post notwithstanding) have improved noticeably and significantly over the last few months as I’ve made my own drastic change in diet.  I attributed it to other things, such as increased regular exercise and a renewed sense of purpose and joy as Red Pill Papa and I create this blog and the business behind it.  But now that this food/mood connection has been coming at me from all sides, the connection in my own life is undeniable.  (And lo and behold, somebody’s written a book on it!  I’ll get to that in a minute).

Historically, even for Red Pill Parents, I think that when we think of sugar, we think of two things: weight and hyperactivity.  We think of it personally: we don’t want our kids to get fat, and we don’t want to deal with the sugar buzz.  But recent cultural trends in the news now make us think of childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes as well, showing us that our country’s heightened sugar consumption is contributing to some very pervasive ill-effects, culture-wide.  But it seems that the time has now come when we must think about sugar and behavior – not just the short-term birthday party or post trick-or-treat sugar buzz, but the long term, daily effects that sugar has on our kids.

And as often happens, once your awareness gets trained on something like this, clues seem to come from all directions.  I had received clues before, but hadn’t paid much attention.  One of them was the story about the sugar free school in Georgia.  I’m not sure where I first heard about it, but when I started researching it today, I was very surprised to learn that the principal of Browns Mill Elementary School in Lithonia, Georgia made this incredible, progressive, common-sense move over ten years ago.  In 1998, Dr. Yvonne Sanders-Butler, then and still the school’s principal, put the kibosh on candy in the classroom, soda in the hallways, ice cream in the cafeteria, cupcakes from well-meaning moms of birthday kids, bake sales and other sugar-laden “institutions” in her school.

And get this (she quotes, to

“In the first six months of the sugar ban, disciplinary incidents went down 23 percent, counseling referrals decreased 30 percent, and in the first years of standardized test scores, reading scores improved 15 percent.”

Then-student Simone Davis said, “Kids were hyper, bouncing off the wall and those things changed.”

This is pretty mind-blowing, don’t you think?  But making the decision was about more than simply sending sugar packing.  More from the story: What happened in Browns Mill was the result of a number of factors, said Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu, former U.S. Surgeon General …. He credits the principal for creating “an environment in her school where it became a normal part of the curriculum to learn about what’s important as far as diet.”

He continues: “It really focuses on the children and having the children learn how to make healthy decisions for themselves,” he said. “Second, it created an environment within the schools that encouraged the kids to make those decisions. By having healthier foods … that gives the children the opportunity to make healthy choices.”

I think so much of what we teach our kids, we teach by establishing what is normal.  My daughter’s second grade classroom has 12-packs of soda in it (I know, I know: I’m working on it).  And while she may not drink one (because she doesn’t drink sodas at home, and knows that they are an occasional, special-occasion treat – and I even regret that), their very presence establishes soda as being something normal in the life of a 7-year-old.  But what Dr. Sanders-Butler has done is to take sugar out of the normal category, and put healthier choices in its place.  Other schools can teach the food pyramid until they’re blue in the face, but if there’s ice cream in the cafeteria and birthday cupcakes are de rigeur, then what do you think those kids are going to perceive is normal?

So discipline improved, counseling referrals went down, and test scores went up.  What could happen if the sugar ban made its way into our homes?  Maybe it would prevent the glucose ups and downs that, according to an article on DiabetesNet result in “impaired memory, anger, irritability, slowed thinking, or depression.”  What might those states translate into, in our kids?  That would be a long list.  But it surely includes poor school performance, social problems, lack of cooperation at home, moodiness, unresponsiveness and a host of problems caused by depression.  Why would we want to invite any of these things into our homes, and into our kids’ lives?  And are we barking up the wrong trees, as they say, medicating our kids for ADHD, chalking up high energy and rowdiness to “boys will be boys” and depression and/or low self-esteem to “overly sensitive girls” perhaps – rather than very simply looking at what our kids put in their mouths?

(And here, also from DiabetesNet, is a lovely scenario for we parents: “As blood sugars rise, the levels of hormones that prevent depression may be lowered. This can worsen symptoms of depression and leave a person with less interest in doing the things needed to improve control, such as thoughtful selection of food, regular exercise, and rest. A vicious cycle of growing depression and worsening control can arise.”  Yikes: how many of us have lived that vicious cycle – without having any idea what we were in the midst of?)

‘Nuff said then.  Want to learn more?  Read more.

For how this relates to your kids: Little Sugar Addicts: End the Mood Swings, Meltdowns, Tantrums, and Low Self-Esteem in Your Child Today (thanks Louisa).

For yourself: Potatoes Not Prozac (thank you Lynda).

And here’s a startling quote from a review of PNP on Amazon: “If sugar were put on the market for the first time today, it would be difficult to get it past the FDA.” — Candace B. Pert, Ph.D., author of Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel

I haven’t yet read these two, and I can’t wait: when I do, I will undoubtedly furiously underline, and will then post some juicy quotes.  Until then, enjoy your own foray into the wisdom of the food/mood connection.  And as always, we’d love to hear about your experiences.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Chrystal @ Happy Mothering February 10, 2010 at 11:51 am

Very thoughtful post. I try to feed my family nutritious meals and do research into what’s actually healthy vs what the mainstream media says is healthy. They’re very often different. And, I try not to allow my daughter to have sugar, but it’s all around us and inevitably, we end up giving in. I’m very interested to read more about these books.

Midwest Mama February 10, 2010 at 9:56 pm

I agree that establishing a normal at home goes a long way outside of home. I never thought I could give up dairy or gluten and yet I feel a million times better when I stay away from it, so we keep it out of the house. I suspect sugar would be the same way. A great lesson for our kids in the benefits of a little self-control.

Louisa February 11, 2010 at 2:44 am

The changes you will witness when you give these things up is profound – thanks for picking up on my comments! These two books are a MUST for all parents and the key to this, outlined in Little Sugar Addicts, and that you have already started to implement in your home RPMama is that sugar busting starts with the PARENT, always…..this I can totally vouch for, (I have written some posts about it on my blog) I could not have gotten anywhere with my children until I had sorted myself out, really.
And one of the reasons we had chocolate in the house? ME!

Good luck to anyone wishing to take up this challenge, it will absolutely change your life for the better, I have to say that I saw on a friends shelf the other day a book called something like ‘how to tame your unruly toddler’, and I felt like saying, “no point reading about naughty steps and time outs, you know what, this has NO IMPACT whatsoever on a child who’s brain is chemically imbalanced because of the sugar in its bloodstream”.

My 7 yo daughter still does not know why she does what she does when she is under the influence! If parents cannot work out why their baby’s behaviour changes for the worst from two years old onwards – there is no point reading books that try to curb the child’s tantrums, they need to address the cause of the tantrums and strangely enough around two years old is when parents usually start giving the kids sugar – but it is a downward cycle – the parents sugar consumption usually rockets too, both must be tackled for any lasting change!!

great post btw
Louisa x

Anastasia February 11, 2010 at 7:26 am

This is such a great post! I couldn’t agree more, and we have seen an incredible difference in our son’s behavior since we eliminated 98% of the sugar in his diet (we allow one sugary treat per day, and it’s usually Special K Red Berries. During holidays, I bake, and so we allow those treats).

In December, after a few days of no sugar, Alex was allowed a snickerdoodle, and the change in his self control, impulses, and mood were startling. No longer able to control himself, he threw tantrums, cried at every little thing, and was honestly just unhappy. So we started to give him half a cookie, instead. I tell this to people who say I’m depriving my child. What am I depriving him of? Bad behavior and empty calories with no nutritional value? The inability to get a hold of his emotions and control his impulses? Wow, I’m a bad mommy!

Besides, we don’t deprive our children. We have ice cream in the summer, and birthday cake, and plenty of cookies. But not every day–not nearly every day–not even close. And as much as I would love to give my child an ice cream cone and have him finish it without any negative repercussions, well, it just doesn’t happen. It’s OK–there are *other* things I can do to make him feel good–sugar doesn’t have to be part of the equation. So what if we don’t buy Twinkies, fruit roll ups, M&Ms, Skittles, cupcakes, Ho Hos, Entenmann’s, etc.? Those are not part of my regular diet, so why would I give them to my children?

I’m also concerned by how much sugar there is in juice and juice snacks. I’m often horrified to see parents giving their small children fruit rolls ups, or other chewy fruit snacks (even the organic ones!), and think it’s OK because they’re “100% juice,” or “Made with real fruit juice.” (I’m not criticizing the parents, BTW. They have just been duped.) There is SO much sugar in those things–and the benefit of eating those/drinking juice vs. eating the actual fruit is very small. Juice is a rare occasion in our home, as well.

I’ve often wondered what it would do for us if we eliminated gluten and all sugar from our diet. I buy gluten free food items here and there, but not with any consistency that would allow me to see a difference.

Thanks for making me think!

Louisa February 12, 2010 at 11:15 am

I think the key in our household has been the education of our two girls into the effects sugar can have on them, it was not enough for me just to never have sugar in the house – because when my girls were face to face with sugar in other situations (there are many of them) they went totally berserk thinking that they had to cram as much in as they could, not knowing when they were getting any more again.

So for us, the key has been to make the connection between sugar and tantrums etc. by keeping a food/mood diary for one week; drawing pictures of the foods we ate and a face corresponding to the mood at the time. We made this connection: jelly on toast before bed meant that my oldest girl had difficulty waking up in the morning – now SHE decides not to have jelly before bed. This is the crucial step – it has to eventually be THEIR decision: so our goal as parents is to give them the knowledge they need to make these decicions!!!!

Little Sugar Addicts gives you the complete protocol for doing this.

Lou x

Anastasia February 12, 2010 at 6:41 pm

Louisa–I totally agree! We have actually done this with Alex–he knows not to ask for sugar right before bed, nap time, etc. It makes the battles so much easier when HE feels like he’s in control, and he gets to choose. I am always amazed that he chooses not to consume sugar (and very proud!).

Thank you for your thoughtful comments! It’s so great to get education from like minded parents. :)

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