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Sugar: When Comfort Eating Is No Comfort at All
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Photographer: Mae Mu | Source: Unsplash

Louise Mercieca is an Award-winning Nutritional Therapist and author, primarily in the areas of Early Years and preventative nutrition.

This article content is sponsored by The Professional Nursery Kitchen. They take care of the meals so you can take care of the children.

Sugar. It’s often in the press, we all know that we should be cautious with how much we eat, but what do we really know about what it does to us? When it comes to nutritional advice to ‘cut down’ or ‘avoid sugar’ is that because Nutritional Therapists, Dieticians, and Nutritionists are kill-joys when it comes to sugar? Do you ever find yourself thinking “It never did me any harm?” or “It’s ok if it’s a treat?”.

Many people say those exact words to me on a weekly basis, but what do I know about sugar that makes me so wary of it? What is understood in the nutritional science of sugar and its’ negative impact on our health? Particularly, when it comes to children and sugar consumption and especially when making the link with sugar, stress and emotions?

When it comes to children and sugar, it’s worth considering that most adult eating habits, patterns and negative eating behaviours relate to food consumed in childhood.

The sugar and health links are vast and can not be covered in one article. So, let’s look specifically at how sugar consumption in childhood shapes some of those future eating habits, patterns and behaviours and particularly in the context of comfort eating with sugar and what we are all living through at the moment.

These are some of the strangest times humanity has ever witnessed. Children have found themselves at home for unprecedented lengths of time, as are their parents/carers. They have stopped all usual activities and routines and are now having to live through a prolonged period of stress and unease from those all around them.

How does sugar fit in to the current global pandemic? Many people have admitted that their sugar intake (and that of their children) has increased. This may seem to many an unhelpful response, as it is during a global pandemic that we should be mindful of the foods that support our immunity and increase our intake of antioxidants and phytochemicals instead.

In theory, yes of course we should be careful, but in bad periods a lot of people turn to comfort eating, and the number one ingredient in comfort foods is sugar.

[%ADVERT%]

Sugar and Stress

I mentioned earlier that most adult eating habits are formed in childhood. Often an adult is an emotional eater because they seek comfort from food, having once, or at multiple times in their childhood been comforted with food, like a “biscuit to make them feel better” or “some cake to cheer us up”. Most stress/comfort/emotional eaters lean towards high fat and high sugar foods, the same foods many people consider a ‘treat’. The notion being that the ‘treat’ will fill an emotional void however big or small that may be.

The biology, I am afraid to say, does not support this idea! Our body will create associations between food and comfort, as food is very emotive and food habits and memories are strong and deep-rooted. If you subconsciously remember a biscuit and a cuddle after falling over when young, your adult subconscious will crave the cuddle, but the food memory will lead you to a biscuit to attempt to fill the void.

When we are living through immensely stressful times, we crave comfort, and for many that is via food. The biology of food means that those decisions are often emotionally led as we can see above. So, what’s the big issue with sugar in all of this?

Whilst you may crave something sweet or offer something sweet to a child as a treat or a ‘cheer up’ you are inadvertently creating neural pathways linking sugary foods to emotional voids. Is there a real problem with this, as many believe a ‘treat’ once in a while won’t do any harm?

To understand more about why I am so wary of allowing these connections to form we need to appreciate the negative impact that sugar can have.

Delicious Donuts
Photographer: Kobby Mendez | Source: Unsplash

1. Sugar and addiction: Sugar is a genuine addiction. One of the reasons why sugary foods have such a strong pull (and a reason not to introduce too early) is that sugar activates the Pleasure and Reward centre of our brains. Sugary foods instantly are linked with pleasurable feelings. The problem is, sugar has the same effect on the brain as hard drugs. The more you eat, the less of a ‘hit’ you get, hence you crave more. This is all linked to the body’s dopamine response. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, sugar activates this so, after consuming ‘treat’ foods high in sugar, salt and fats the brain is flooded with endorphins with causes a temporary change in mood. For a brief period, you will get some pleasure from the food but this is quickly followed by a drop in both blood sugar and mood. What often happens is, when searching for the ‘feel good’ feeling again you once again reach for the ‘fix food’ thus creating addictive tendencies towards foods that really do not make you happy.

2. Sugar and emotions: dopamine will only temporarily make you feel happy. There are metabolic and neurological health issues with comfort eating, sugar consumption is clearly linked to obesity, cancer and metabolic conditions, and there’s emerging evidence into neurological decline with a proposed Type 3 Diabetes — a type of Alzheimer’s disease resulting from insulin resistance to the brain.

3. Habits in childhood: we know that eating patterns in childhood can shape an adult’s relationship with food, this not only applies to the food eaten but the language and patterns associated with food. If we label sugary and high fat foods as treats and consume them to fill an emotional void or fix a negative event then we are creating future pathways of emotional eating. Going back to the global situation we all find ourselves in, this is perhaps the most stressful time our children have had to face. No matter how well-adjusted and emotionally resilient the child is, right now their emotions are likely to be on a roller coaster. Just like us grown-ups. So, how can we help them through this time? By not trying to fix external events, disappointments, upsets, set-backs (of which there have been plenty!) with food, especially if that food is sugary/high fat or both.

I am not saying ‘NO SUGAR’, we can all eat sugar in moderation (although my preference would be to avoid it in the under 5’s). The link with sugar and emotions are the connections and importance we place on the food itself in relation to a situation. Be mindful of the language and the habits that this can lead to.

Food can naturally balance our emotions, that is what our body is very good at. Sugar interferes with this natural balance. Right now, what we all need is a good mix of nutrients to balance our mood, sleep and support our immune system. Sugar, alas, suppresses all of these, so it is not just me being mean!

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