Are You Turning Your Kids Into Addicts?

By: Dr. Victor Marchione | Healthy Eating | Monday, June 17, 2013 - 12:23 PM

134145208 The other day something happened in my office that made me question how we are raising our children. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share that story with you.

One of my medical colleagues in the office, Eva, is a mother of two who follows a healthy lifestyle. She often comes in with exciting, colorful salads for lunch, and is known around the office for bringing in interesting healthy treats. I couldn’t help but notice that whenever Eva brought in healthy dishes and offered them to others in the office, she would be met with a look of disdain and a comment on healthy food not tasting good.

The other day Eva brought in her healthy version of chocolate chip cookies made of chickpeas and figs. And, while they do sound different, many colleagues in the office tried them and said they were delicious. Once specific co-worker remarked that, while he thought the cookies tasted great, he felt sorry for Eva’s children. He explained that although he greatly admired her for eating healthy and feeding her children healthy snacks, he felt bad that Eva’s children were missing out on so many delicious treats. He even told Eva that she was depriving her children of happiness by withholding things like cookies and candies, which make kids happy.

While I initially found myself nodding my head in agreement, I began to think about what he was saying and was suddenly infuriated. How is it that a loving mother can be chastised for working tirelessly to make sure that her children are raised with proper nutrition? Not only does Eva strive to feed her children healthily, but she also does her best to ensure that they still get to eat things like cookies, albeit in a healthier, tastier form. I suddenly realized that she wasn’t depriving her children of “the joy of a cookie,” as my co-worker exclaimed. In fact, I realized that we were the ones depriving our children of proper nutrition.

I can’t help but wonder why a mother is being criticized for doing the right thing by trying to improve her child’s life. Eva stood up for her values and said that children should not be taught to think that unhealthy, sugary treats lead to happiness. Meanwhile, many of us are feeding our children unhealthy foods that are harming their health, despite our good intentions.

You may recall that I wrote to you about the sugar industry’s conspiracy to mask the health risks of sugar. On countless occasions and in numerous medical journals, sugar (including high-fructose corn syrup) has been linked to weight gain, diabetes, obesity, hyperactivity, liver disease, and numerous other health disorders. Why, then, are we perfectly content to continue feeding our children such a harmful substance (so called by Dr. Robert Lustig, leading expert on childhood obesity at the University of California School of Medicine)?

In fact, sugar has often been compared to cocaine for its addictive and pleasure-inducing properties. In a recent study, Dr. Lustig performed brain scans on patients who consumed sugar, and found very similar reactions to people who take cocaine. Sugar triggers dopamine, the chemical in our brains that controls pleasure, and leads to a euphoric experience similar to that of cocaine.

Not many of us would question a police officer who stops a child from taking cocaine or smoking marijuana. Would you criticize a parent who withholds cocaine from their child? In theory, that parent is denying their child pleasure and happiness. The comparison may sound extreme, but it’s not. Both are substances with addictive properties; both trigger the release of dopamine in the brain and lead to feelings of euphoria; and both have been associated with numerous, dangerous health consequences. Why is it, then, that our first reaction to Eva was that she’s depriving her children of happiness?

It’s difficult to accept that whenever we seek to make our child happy by giving them birthday cake, a cookie, or a candy, we’re actually harming their health. We all know the negative effects that sugar has on our children, yet we continue to feed it to them. When we were children, a cookie, ice cream cone, or piece of cake used to be a real treat on a very special occasion. It used to be something our mothers brought us on a Saturday morning from the store. The problem now is that sugary snacks have become a staple in our pantries, and a staple of our children’s diets.

As Eva told me, there are immense societal pressures to please our children at the expense of their health. Children are exposed to countless advertisements encouraging them to eat junk food. Our responsibility is to stand up to those pressures, and place our children’s health above all else. This doesn’t mean that our children are denied a childhood, or denied treats, as long as it’s in moderation. Just as Eva does, we can choose to feed our children treats that are both tasty and healthy. If we teach our children that nutritious food can also be delicious, they need not miss out on anything.

When my co-worker told Eva that he feels bad for her children, her response ultimately changed his point-of-view. “Don’t feel bad for my kids who don’t eat cookies filled with trans-fats and sugar,” she said. “They are learning that their health is more important than their immediate happiness. I feel bad for the children who are raised to think that cookies will make them happy, no matter what the health consequences.”

I urge you to take after Eva’s actions and stand up to societal pressures. Take the harder road by demonstrating that your child’s health is more important than their immediate gratification. After all, if you’re willing to withhold cocaine from your child even though it might make them happy, the same should be true for unhealthy foods. While you know they might enjoy it initially, nothing is more important than seeing your child live a long, healthy life.

Perhaps it’s time that we commend parents that are putting in the effort to cook wholesome meals and bake healthy desserts for their children. Rather than condemn them for depriving their children of happiness, we should commend them for preventing a lifetime of sugar addiction.

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