While we usually think of healthy eating playing more of a role in our long-term health – such as promoting growth or defending against disease – there’s one concept that’s often forgotten: food as fuel for everyday activities. Balanced menus can make a huge difference in well-being and productivity, both for kids and parents alike.
That’s why the theme of this year’s Nutrition Month (March) is “Eating 9 to 5 ”. It’s time to focus on the short-term effects of healthy eating. This is an important concept, considering that today’s families seem to be in busy mode at meal times through the day. Rushing through the day to work and school and often to after school or evening activities, can force healthy eating onto the back burner. Eating well through the day can be a real challenge.
Have you heard the term hangry? It’s when physical hunger causes anger. How often has that happened to you? What about your children before feeding time? Have you ever noticed that’s when you usually have to play referee to quell any bickering or stop a fight? That’s likely because they’re hangry, which can even lead to aggressive behaviour.
In American research on adults – kids may reflect these consequences even more so – scientists measured blood sugar in 107 married couples over 21 days. The researchers assessed aggressive behaviour and feelings of anger by allowing the subjects to stick pins in voodoo dolls that represented their spouses and to blast their spouse with loud noise through headphones. The subjects who had lower glucose levels stuck more pins into the voodoo doll and blasted their spouse with louder and longer noise blasts.
It doesn’t sound pretty. When a child exhibits aggression, there may be a number of factors at play, but don’t discount the possibility that it may be due to low blood sugar. A decrease in the ability to learn may be another potential consequence.
Poorly balanced meals can cause a blood sugar roller coaster. Too much refined carbohydrates can lead to a spike (the top of the coaster), and too little protein at a meal or snack causes the blood sugar to drop too rapidly (the bottom of the coaster). What appears to be a nutritious lunch – vegetables, a few tablespoons of hummus, whole grain crackers and fruit – may in fact be short on protein and leave a person (parents, too!) with low blood sugar levels just a few hours later. Add in a kid-friendly option, such as a few cheese cubes, Greek yogurt or a hard-boiled egg, to boost the staying power and stabilize the “drop”.
If you have hangry family members at different times of the day, why not assess if their food choices are playing a role? Here are a few tips to get you started:
Check out what’s being brought home in your children’s lunch boxes
While it’s key to involve them when packing school meals, give them guidelines as to what makes up balanced lunches and snacks. For young kids who are in full day programs and seem to return with uneaten foods regularly, ask your child’s teacher or lunchroom supervisor for more information. How much time do they have to eat? Is your child able to open all the containers easily? Is he or she distracted by eating with all the other children?
As some families often eat dinner later in the evening, snacks are essential for kids and adults alike. Again, be sure to include some protein-rich options here. The amounts, though, can be less than at mealtime so a small amount of hummus or another bean dip would suffice. Nuts are a super option but for nut-free selections, consider roasted chick peas or soybeans (or seasoned fresh or frozen ones – edamame), seeds or yogurt.
Nutrition Month is a great time to encourage children to learn about healthy eating. Dietitians across the country have set out to help Canadians with a monthlong set of activities aimed at busy families. Visit dietitians.ca for various tools and apps, such as Cookspiration. com. Designed to inspire you to get into the kitchen and cook anytime, it includes dietitian-approved recipes to suit your mood and schedule. Also, check out dietitians.ca for Nutrition Month activities in your neighbourhood.
Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). Visit rosieschwartz.com for more nutrition and healthy eating tips.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Feb/Mar 2015.