I have to work extra hard to relax, let go and become creative during the holidays because of the onslaught of all things sugar. Luckily, knowledge is power! Every year as I learn more, I welcome the challenge of coming up with creative ways to offset the, in my opinion, way out-of-balance hype and go-to of everything sugar for both kids and adults around the holidays.
I mean, the studies are so clear when it comes to sugar and behavioral issues - are we really still doing this? Aisles and aisles of junk candy with high fructose corn syrup, red, yellow and blue dyes, caramel coloring, fructose, artificial sweeteners, un-pronounceable ingredients, sugar, sugar, sugar... it makes me feel a lot of things. And because I have two kids ages 5 and 7, I get extra feel-y.
When I see kids who are unhinged and acting out, I can't help but wonder what a day in their life looks like when it comes to what they eat and drink.
It's not their fault. Their taste buds have been hi-jacked. Sugar is cheap and highly addictive. There's a study that's particularly popular that showed when mice were given white sugar or cocaine, the mice actually chose to go back to the white sugar over and over again.
There's a real incongruency in our culture. Between marketing colorful, shiny cartoon wrappers in tiny little packages that fit in tiny little hands to doctor's visits to help with their kid's attention deficit, poor immunity, behavioral issues and poor sleep. I wish there was the Hippocratic oath of "first, do no harm" for industrial food and all things marketing. It's incredible to think of how many issues might clear up if there was. Why are kids + sugar the norm, holidays or not?
But it's ok. There's knowledge and there's education and there are other options! Education is the first step. The more I help my kids create a connection between their inputs and the consequences of those, asking them to think about how that made them feel, both positive and negative, the more they understand.
And that goes for all of us.
So I'm gearing up for another holiday season and embracing letting them (and me) be a part of it without being a hard "no" to any of it or out of control with all of it. After all, the stress of it can be more damaging than a couple pieces of candy. I just remember that the majority of the time, we're building a strong foundation, and that plays a major part in how the body processes things.
Every challenge is an opportunity. In this case, I get to teach my kids about alternatives that still give them that sweet taste but leave them feeling a whole lot better. If I keep my own energy levels up through whole food nutrition, sleep and exercise, then I have more energy to be creative and flexible.
Like I said, knowledge is power. Being informed puts the response-ability (ability to respond) back in your court giving you the freedom to make a conscious choice.
Sugar falls under the umbrella of one of the macronutrients called carbohydrates, or carbs. Carbs, fats, and proteins (and water) are macronutrients that your body needs in the greatest amount to maintain health. Carbohydrates include fiber, starches and sugars and we use carbohydrates as fuel to keep us going as well as for nutrient balance. They're essential.
However, some carbs are better than others. Whole foods like grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts are complex carbohydrates and they give us steady energy along with lots of vitamins and minerals. Highly processed and refined carbs fall under simple carbohydrates like flours, breads, pastas and pastries. They give us a short and fast spike of energy but they've been stripped of their vitamin and mineral content during the processing process, leaving them as lifeless, empty calories. Other simple carbs include honey, maple syrup, and fruits but they are at least packed full of fiber and micronutrients.
Everyone could probably agree that we are a snack food culture. Walk down any grocery aisle, read any label and you'll see that the majority of our snack foods consist of highly processed, highly refined carbs and sugars. It's really not even food, just some food-like substance and it's wreaking havoc on our health.
When you eat simple sugars your blood sugar levels rise. The pancreas responds by releasing insulin so the cells can put all of that sugar to use for either energy or storage - which is why/how you get an increase of energy or activity that you use or you get stored belly fat. Then, what goes up must come down. You get a crash where you feel like you have zero energy because it was all used up so quickly and now you crave more so you can keep going. Up, down, up, down.
These big pendulum swings of high highs and low lows result in hyperactivity, restlessness, irritability, emotional swings, inability to focus or listen, and overall instability,
Studies show that sugar has an affect on the immune system. The over-consumption of processed sugars acts as an immunosuppressant, depleting the body's nutrient balance, which creates metabolic disruption.
Highly processed and artificial sugars disrupts the gut's microbiome, which is the team of both healthy and potentially harmful microbes that live in us to help keep us in balance. When we have too much refined sugar, the beneficial bacteria are depleted and we end up with inflammation. Potentially harmful bacteria aren't the problem in and of themselves - it's the depletion of the good bacteria that is. When we keep our stress levels and blood sugar levels in balance, everyone's happy and can get along just fine; conversely, too much stress and too big of blood sugar swings and now we have gastrointestinal, immune and hormonal issues.
Because the high levels of sugar and salt in everything are so addictive, we have a bit of a withdrawal when we move to eating foods without them. We think "this doesn't taste right" or "this is too bland" but we have to re-train our taste buds to respond to foods closest to their natural state. The good news is, it doesn't take long to retrain your taste, think one, maybe two weeks, and soon those processed foods won't taste as good and your body will begin to crave the taste of whole foods that give you real energy.
These refined foods are void of nutrition so we can eat and eat and still be hungry. We're not getting food that our body recognizes and can utilize so it continues to signal the hunger gene even though you just ate a loaf of bread with jelly. You're eating, but you're malnourished. When you eat whole foods, you eat less and feel fuller because you're getting the perfect balance of macro and micro nutrients straight from nature.
Sugar can make you thirsty. High levels of sugar in the bloodstream draws water out of the cells so they can, you guessed it, try and balance out the ratio. Too much and you can become dehydrated. Instead of reaching for more food or a sugar-laden drink, have a glass of water to help yourself out. In fact, a good trick when you want a treat is to drink a glass of water first and wait 10 minutes before you indulge.
Solutions! Not all sugar is bad and there are lots of alternatives to be creative with as well as ways to help stabilize blood sugar levels if you splurge on the holidays.
Nature made delicious simple carbohydrates to give you the quick energy AND micronutrients like vitamins and mineral: dates, dried fruit, berries, honey, maple syrup. Once again, all of these things in the grocery store can be modified to make them cheaper by cutting them with additives and artificial ingredients. They're unnecessary and not good. You have to become a ninja when it comes to reading labels. There should be one ingredient in each of the aforementioned items - the ingredient that you're buying.
Complex carbohydrates for sustained energy include rice, oats, quinoa, nuts, and seeds.
Look up recipes for your favorite sweets that include dates, nuts and oats for whole food nutrition - there are a ton out there.
Nuts are the perfect food - they include all of the macronutrients and many micronutrients. They're full of energy, dense and keep you full.
Fat helps the nervous system and body feel satiated - think high quality fats like coconut, olive oil, butter, nuts, and avocados.
Add fermented foods into your diet. High quality refrigerated sauerkraut is so good for building up the beneficial flora in the gut's microbiome. Just a dab will do alongside your meal and my kids love it! Bubbies is our favorite brand. Yogurt gets all the hype when it comes to pro-biotics but so often it's full of hormones from unhappy animals, stripped of fat, and loaded with sugar. Remember, you are now a label reading ninja so you can catch things like this and make an informed choice.
High quality breakfast. It paves the way for my kids' whole day and sets them up for success with stable blood sugar levels right out of the gate. Think high quality fat and protein with complex carbs and vitamins.
Stay hydrated! Water makes everything better. You can read more about my recent post on this here.
Breakfast is an awesome start and then maintenance is needed for the rest of the day. Being that we're a snack culture, having something to grab quick is crucial. Kids will almost always go for a sugar-y bar in a shiny wrapper so either have it be a whole foods option or have something else sitting on the counter within reach instead.
We let our kids have a candy bag. They can have one piece but they can play store with it, trade with it, organize it all they want. They know after an event or a parade, they put it in their candy bag and we put it up until they want their "one piece."
Snacks at our house:
a big bag of trail mix. I ask the kids what their favorite nuts are then I buy them all separately with some dried cherries and raisins and create a big 'ol bag of trail mix. Every time we leave the house for soccer, a hike, a bike ride, an outing, all we do is grab a water bottle and the bag and we're ready for perfectly balanced fat, protein and carbs to keep everyone emotionally balanced and nourished.
I keep a bowl of pistachios in the shell on the kitchen table so the kids have something within reach to do with their hands and to snack on.
Peanut butter everything! or some other nut butter if that doesn't work for you. Bananas and peanut butter. Apples and peanut butter. Dates and peanut butter. Crackers and peanut butter. Peanut butter toast. Peanut butter on a spoon. We're lucky enough to get it freshly ground at our food co-op in town so, again, one ingredient. From the grocery store, make sure there are only two ingredients - peanuts and salt - and preferably organic. Unfortunately, nut butters can be full of added sugar and rancid trans fat oils to make them cheaper and you sicker. Label. Reading. Ninja.
Smoothies with full fat coconut milk. We always have frozen fruit in the freezer - a handful of fruit, a pinch of nuts and full fat coconut milk make for a balanced snack or meal.
Ezekiel bread is a complete protein, and the grains are sprouted and organic for extra nutrition. Since it's not full of preservatives to make it shelf stable, you can find it in the refrigerator section in your local food store.
Guacamole and chips
Hummus and veggies
Fruit and nuts
I am a supporter of sustainable, conscious, regenerative farming and happily spend extra money to support farms that treat their animals humanely, building up soils and having an overall benefit to the planet. Butter, eggs, and meat that come from these farms that ensure organic, pasture raised, grass fed products are also go to snacks and meals at our house. Wild pastures and White Oak pastures are two companies that we support for our animal products - beef sticks make a great snack for kids without the blood sugar spike and at Wild Pastures they're fermented for extra beneficial gut bacteria. If you're plant based, just skip this option.
Breakfast ideas: Oatmeal with berries, a spoonful of coconut oil or butter and pure maple syrup | Ezekiel sprouted toast with butter or peanut butter | smoothies with fat | red lentils and quinoa with spinach and pasture raised eggs | scrambled eggs and fruit / sprouted toast |
The most common thing I hear is "Well, that's so expensive." Yes, that's true. High quality ingredients tend to cost more because they're more valuable. But is it worth it? Are you worth it? Is the well-being of your family worth it? So often food is tied into beliefs around worthiness. I assure you, you are worth it.
How I choose to spend my food dollar impacts not only my own health, but the health of the environment, the farmer, the animal, the plant, politics, ethics, the food network, which industry I'm supporting and overall the planet as a whole. All of these things are worth it, too.
So your grocery bill goes up by $50 because you make different, more ethical and high quality choices by choosing foods that have fewer ingredients and are closer to their natural state. Ok. Ask yourself this: How much do... co-pays, prescriptions, problems with insurance billing, time off of work, trips to the doctor, emotional cost of being sick and tired, stress and worry of not knowing what's wrong, over the counter medicine (also full of sugar) and fast food take-out cause you're too tired to cook...cost?
Shoot, I'd give someone $50 to not have to deal with that stuff. Then I'll have more energy. I'll have more energy to cook simple, satisfying meals, go outside, get some good sleep, enjoy my work, feel hydrated and nourished and play with my kids all while feeling good about how and where I'm spending my dollar. And I'll be able to have a few pieces of candy and a piece of birthday cake without it sending me on a weight gain and emotional rollercoaster. To me, the peace and joy that brings, is invaluable. I'm worth it.
"But it's so hard to know what to buy." Aim to buy whole, recognizable foods or packaged foods with 5 ingredients or less that have ingredients that you can pronounce and also recognize. Look up simple recipes. We mostly eat meals that have very few ingredients.
It feels good to feel good. And it feels good to let loose, too. Holidays and special occasions are great for that. Just remember, there's always a healthier version, another alternative, more choice and freedom, more ways to be creative to get what we want and have it all.
Flexibility refers to choice. Our choices result from our thoughts and our feelings. How do you want to feel?
May you continue to educate yourself on ways to balance your stress and blood sugar levels. May you prioritize yourself so you have energy to be creative. May you feel worthy enough and feel sweet enough already to embrace your birthright of health and happiness.
And remember, the sweetest treat you could ever give yourself, your kids, your life is your own loving attention.