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Your Kids and Sugar: Are They Addicted?

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Dr. Meg Meeker

Nuts. Now researchers tell me that when I dunk my Oreos in milk, my brain acts just like I took a hit of cocaine. Seriously, now I can’t even love Oreos anymore? The ones with orange centers are my favorite; not because they taste any different than the white centered ones, but because they’re pretty.

A new study from Connecticut College revealed their findings on the effect of Oreos on rats’ brains. In one chamber, the rats were offered Oreos. In another chamber, they were given rice cakes. Even rats aren’t fools. They tore the Oreos apart and devoured the cream filled centers but wouldn’t even finish the rice cakes. Then the researchers gave the rats a shot of either morphine or cocaine in one chamber and then gave them a shot of saline in the other chamber. They observed that the rats who were given the drugs wanted to spend as much time in the chambers where they received the drugs as they did in the chambers where they received the Oreos. Thus, the researchers concluded that the rats’ pleasure centers were stimulated as strongly by the cookies as they were by the drugs.

For those of us who crave chocolaty goodness, this might be bad news. While I am not ready to call my love for sweets akin to being addicted to cocaine, I get their point. High fat, high sugar, highly processed foods are bad for us. I knew that. But I do think that there’s something here that we can’t miss, as much as I’d like to dismiss it.

Very sweet fatty foods can become addictive. I am the first to admit that I am a sugar addict. As a young pediatric resident, I wore one of those long white coats so I could carry all of my necessary “tools” and keep my clothes clean. I learned early on that if I stuffed one of the huge white pockets with bit-o-honeys and fireballs, I could skip meals without starving. I didn’t want to, but I was so busy in the hospital that I frequently missed meals so I had to find a way to quiet my hunger. And candy worked. Unfortunately, those habits became very hard to stop. When I finished my training, I decided to break my sugar habit and found it very, very difficult. One time after I fasted from sugar for an entire week, I took my kids to buy school supplies at Staples. While in the store, I spotted a plastic bucket full of Swedish fish, ripped the thing open and downed the whole thing before check-out. My kids were mortified. Sugar addiction is real.

The second point is that high sugar, high fat foods trigger pleasure centers and can act to alter our moods short term. This can be real trouble for kids who are struggling with anything from school issues to family or friendship troubles. A spoonful of sugar indeed acts like a medicine to help their troubles go down, for a bit.

These two points are very important because while we think that cookies and sweets are “treats” for our kids, we must be very careful. A little is fine, but if you find that your child (or you) is constantly reaching for the Oreos, roll up your sleeves. There is work to be done and some serious sugar weaning may be in order. It’s hard to wean kids off of sugar but it’s very important because you don’t want to set your child up for a tough addiction that will only get harder to break. And, equally important, you want to make sure that your child learns to self soothe with other things beside sugar and fat. If you think your child may be addicted, I would go so far as to say, find out if he is eating to release some tension or frustration. Then, help him deal with it in other ways. Turning to sugar is easy, but it solves nothing and it will only make him heavier and more frustrated in the end.

Oreos are an iconic American kid-friendly food. So let’s respect the chocolate buggers and make sure that our kids (and we) dunk them in a healthier way.

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