woman sipping colorful smoothieHave you ever watched your kid have a meltdown at exactly the wrong time in exactly the wrong place? Of course you have! If you have not, then you probably are not a parent. I don’t care if you are the best parent on the planet, your child will behave badly at some point in time, at many points in time.
I would like to offer you one piece to the puzzle of kids’ behavior. Kids tend to be very sensitive to rises and drops in blood sugar. I say this not from a medical perspective, I say this from the mother of 5 prospective and a counselor of children perspective. So please do not take what I say as medical advice, and always check with your doctor if you have questions or concerns or before making any major changes in your child’s diet.
Now that we have that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get back to kids and blood sugar levels. You have probably seen this in your own home – you give your kids a soda or a high sugar snack and they get really energized, and then they get cranky and want more. They have had a spike in blood sugar, which gives them a bunch of energy, but then instead of returning to normal they often crash lower than normal, making them cranky.
The other thing that I often see is kids getting too hungry and parents miss that cue, so kids get grumpy, defiant, sluggish and whiney and the parents think it is just bad behavior. One of the first things I always ask my kids when they start to show signs of crankiness, is “when is the last time you ate and what did you eat” (this is of course if I don’t know the answer). More often than not, the kids have not eaten for a couple of hours, or the last thing they had was mostly carbohydrate with little or no protein.
As parents, and maybe even as a society in general, we vastly underestimate the importance of regular snacks and the quality of those snacks and how they impact behavior. I see so many people get stuck on the idea of 3 meals/day with no snack in between. Our bodies typically don’t function best that way, especially kids’ bodies. Dips and spikes in blood sugar equal dips and spikes in behavior. I know that I am absolutely that way. I have often told people “don’t talk to me until I get something to eat”, because I get terribly cranky when my blood sugar drops. In fact, my body is similar to many kids in that I don’t usually feel the pangs of hunger, I feel grumpy and moody which means I need to eat. Kids don’t often recognize hunger, but as parents we recognize the grumpy and moody in our kids!
Over the years, I have found it to be immensely helpful to really pay attention to my kids’ food, and in turn I see a dramatic improvement in their behavior. Don’t watch the clock and tell them they can’t possibly be hungry because they just ate. That is the silliest thing I have ever heard. We are hungry when we are hungry. Sometimes our metabolism is faster and sometimes slower depending on other factors that are going on. So, when you see your child’s behavior deteriorating, before punishing them think about if low blood sugar might be the culprit.
Make sure to combine protein with carbs to balance out the spikes and drops in blood sugar. Carbs are the easy part – fruit, crackers, chips, the kinds of things we often use for snacks. Of course, some of these are healthier than others, but I am a realist! Do the best you can to keep snacks as healthy as you can, but as soon as you say “we will never eat this”, or “we will only eat these foods”, you are setting yourself up for trouble. Protein can require a little more thoughtfulness. I like to have several choices on hand when possible – things like string cheese, yogurt, almonds, pumpkin seeds, jerky, or some type of protein drink. Only keep things in the house that you are ok with your kids eating, that way there is not a power struggle over keeping kids away from foods you don’t want them to eat. I keep things like seeds, nuts and fruit within easy reach on the countertop, and let the kids graze on them as much as they would like. I also have a bag or two of chips in the pantry, and let the kids know that they are welcome to those snacks as well, but when they are gone there won’t be any more until next week when I get to the market again. Funny, they seem to be choosing the less healthy things less and less the more they get used to having healthy things in their bodies.
Just try it out – try making sure your kids eat every 2-3 hours. Make sure they get a good dose of healthy protein in the morning before they head out for school. If they start getting cranky, try a little snack first before punishment (even if you think they can’t possibly be hungry). Try it out for yourself as well and see if your moods are more stable. It is amazing how our moods and behavior can be improved by improving our diets!
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