As my blog becomes more well read, with more and more of you sharing it with family and friends, it’s commonplace now that I get requests to talk to people who are looking for advice about how to help their kids. Being passionate about helping parents understand what to do (and what not to do) to create better neurological organization in their children, I find myself on the phone many weekend mornings, trying to help a mom or dad understand what the pioneer in child brain development, Glenn Doman, taught me: that the brain grows by use and that to eliminate the symptoms, we must treat the cause.
I have become a real cause-seeking devotee now, in a world increasingly obsessed with symptoms. With Big Pharma hard-selling us on all their chemical solutions, and the packaged food industry hard-selling us on all their chemical products disguised as food, no wonder people are lost and confused when faced with the issue of finding and addressing root causes in terms of the brain, its development, and the behavior of children.
One of the things I tell every single parent that I talk to is to not underestimate the power of nutrition in the development of a child’s brain. We all think we know what that means. It means we should give our kids more broccoli and fewer cookies. Of course, we all know that. And most of us do our best to make that happen in the context of our busy lives, feeling the Mom Shame of too many take-out pizza nights and McDonald’s drive-throughs on the way to and from band practice and sporting events. I get it.
But, if you really want to help your child who has either already been diagnosed as having some kind of neurological disorder (ADD, ADHD, autism, dyslexia, epilepsy, cognitive or motor developmental delays, spasticity, cerebral palsy, just to name a few) OR your child who simply struggles to learn, to focus, to succeed at age level, a child who has frequent meltdowns and behavioral or emotional problems…I have one thing to say to all of you that will make an enormous impact on your child’s brain. This thing that I am about to say to you will not make me very popular. Most of you won’t like it. Some of you won’t even take me seriously at all. But I’m going to say it anyway, because it is the absolute truth. Deciding what to feed your kids is the single most important thing you can ever do and it has the power to transform the way that your child’s brain develops and works. And, we should not feed our children sugar. There, I said it.
What your child eats has the power to help their brain develop more quickly, function better, develop long dendrites and smooth axonal connections between neurons so that learning and remembering is an easy process, or what your child eats has the power to cause inflammation, which tears apart the connections in neuronal networks, makes it hard for cell axons to reach each other, creates hormones that block cell repair and normal function and leads to a state of inferior neurological performance. Food does this.
Most people that I talk to, “yeah, yeah, yeah” me on this point. They already know, more broccoli and fewer cookies. But I am going to argue for no cookies, not a single cookie, not if you want your children to truly do well and to be well.
“What?!” I can hear some of you exclaim, “How can she be serious, suggesting that we don’t give our kids any sugar at all? But they like it so much! Birthday cakes? Christmas cookies? How could my kids live without them? Doesn’t she even care if they’re happy?”
Yep. She cares a lot. She just knows the difference between really being happy (like when your body is healthy, and in hormonal balance, and well nourished, so that you feel a constant state of well-being and steady energy and joy inside all of your cells) and being temporarily distracted by a short-term sugar rush. Consider that when sugar enters the bloodstream, it causes a cascade of reactions including an insulin response that then transports the sugar into the cells, or is supposed to anyway. The problem is that, because of the wrong diet for most of their lives, so many kids are already insulin resistant, which means that the cells won’t let insulin carry sugar in, and so instead, it gets stored as fat. So we have bodies getting fatter and cells being starved. This is especially bad when it comes to the brain, where the cells must have a steady supply of glucose for their proper functioning.
“See there,” I can hear someone point out, “we need glucose! You just said the brain needs glucose! So, sugar is necessary, right?!”
Nope. Not at all. The small, steady stream of glucose that brain cells require can come from vegetables and it can come from protein, so your kids do need plenty of those. But not sugar.
“What about fruit?! Surely kids need fruit to be healthy, don’t they?”
Well, actually, no. Depending on how much and what kind of fruit a child eats, they can end up with the same kind of blood sugar spike and drop that they would get from a cupcake. Now, fruit certainly has more valuable nutrients than the cupcake, but it is not necessarily a good choice for a developing brain. And, there aren’t any nutrients in fruit that can’t also be gotten from vegetables with much less sugar.
“So, what then,” you rightfully ask, “what should my kid eat?!”
I’m so glad you asked.
Consider this – the brain is made up of over 60% fat. The axons that reach out from every neuron to blast neurotransmitters across synapses in order to communicate with each other (this is how everything you do gets done, by the way), are covered in fat. This fatty lining is called myelination. The fattier, the more slippery, the better for quick message blasting. Where do you think the brain gets what it needs to build those beautiful slick bridges between neurons, by the way? Yep, you guessed it, from what you give it. From food.
“But isn’t it bad to eat fat?”
Nope, not the right kinds of fat. There’s a lot of misinformation out there based on bad science that has terrified us of fat (for the history of this read Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat). Children (grown-ups too, actually) need to eat quite a bit of fat in order to be well. And, if we consume that fat in the context of a low carbohydrate diet, then a really interesting thing happens with the metabolism of body cells: they switch over to burning fat instead of sugar as a main fuel source, which leaves them with almost unlimited energy, and it leaves the neurons in the brain with the glucose they require so that they, too, have an unlimited energy supply.
“Oh no,” I hear a few parents grumble, “my kids have too much energy already! Unlimited energy would be a nightmare in our house!”
Not so fast. The nightmare is caused by that blood sugar dip (which happens roughly 30-60 minutes after the blood sugar spike). At the peak, sugared-up kids are active, happy, noisy, and energetic, sometimes too much so. It’s interesting to consider that sugar acts on the dopamine receptors in the brain in the same way cocaine does! So, sugar makes them “high.” Then what? As soon as insulin does its job of removing this excess of sugar from the bloodstream, transporting what it can into cells and storing the rest as fat in the liver, muscles and body tissues, the glucose levels drop.
But remember what I said about brain cells? Well, too bad for them, no glucose is available now, and without it they cannot perform their tasks. So, we see tantrums and meltdowns instead of verbal language abilities. We see anger, frustration, irritability, sleepiness, lack of focus. We see lethargy and more hunger and a spiral of more sugar cravings that can lead into the next cycle. Many families think this is just normal kid stuff. But please, let’s be careful not to mistake “common” for “normal.”
And, consider that this blood sugar cycle of instability happens even with “foods” that many people don’t consider sweet – pizza, bread, pasta, crackers, chips, pretzels, all those made with refined flours, especially if they are low in fat and have added sugar to improve the taste. In our modern culture, we are awash in food-like products that have terrible effects on our bodies, and nowhere is this more tragic than in developing children whose brains are still being wired to learn. I see it all the time in my private tutoring practice, when kids come in after a sugary snack, are too buzzed up to sit still and focus, and then come crashing down into some emotional, frustrated heap, again not able to learn.
And, I saw it in my own experience with my daughter, Haylie, as we fought for years to help her overcome her neonatal brain injury to become well. Changing what she ate was absolutely the single most powerful aspect of her treatment. But, it took us years of some trial and error to understand the power of food and which ones provided her with the right kind of macro and micro nutrients to allow her brain to achieve its genetic potential.
You see, there are kids running around all over this planet who are so very fortunate that they have good brains! But, without the proper nutrition, those brains won’t be able to achieve their genetic potential. The field of epigenetics is showing us how important environment is to gene expression. Just imagine what this means for our kids and their neurological abilities. What kind of environment are we providing for their brains to develop, grow, heal, repair, and make webs of life-long neuron connections that will give them the ability to learn, reason, and solve problems? Are we on auto-pilot, feeding them what our TV’s tell us is “normal,” or are we tuned into a deeper wisdom that is telling us, with rising rates of modern diseases and neurological dysfunctions, that we need to pay more attention and get back onto the right path? The power is in our hands.
So, my advice for parents is to observe very carefully and begin to make the connections between what your kids eat and how they behave (you can do this for yourself, too, by the way). Keep a diary if you need to. If you have older children, inform them about what sugar does in the body and brain, and ask them to notice how they feel after eating different foods. Depression, headaches, irritability, bloating, mood swings, menstrual discomforts, acne and skin problems, and sugar cravings are also signs that sugar is a problem. Here are some resources for you to learn more, and to help you decide which foods should be a part of your child’s diet:
The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf
Wired to Eat by Robb Wolf
Healthy Brains, Healthy Children by Dr. Coralee Thompson and Dr. Phillip Maffetone
In Fitness & In Health: The No-Nonsense Guide to Diet, Exercise, and Disease Prevention by Dr. Phillip Maffetone
Not convinced yet? No worries, stay tuned for more…I’m not giving up on you yet!
Convinced and ready to get started? Just hold your horses for another few minutes…sugar withdrawal is also a thing, so I advise you to be well-informed and prepared. Do your homework, and consider quitting sugar yourself first so you know what it’s like.
Next up: my personal story of how I quit my sugar addiction (and it wasn’t easy). Subscribe now so you won’t miss it!
I began this blog to share pieces of the book I'm writing about my daughter's courageous march down the path from brain injury to wellness. It's the story of how one little girl overcame the odds, a long list of labels, and limiting diagnoses. I hope it inspires other parents to dream bigger by knowing what is possible.