A long time ago while visiting her loving and gentle grandma, a wee toddler wearing her frilly lemon coloured dress tripped over her little white sandals and flew forward into nothing but air, before landing on her tiny soft palms and scuffing her tiny bare knees.
She froze in shock and then started to cry, looking up for grandma to come and rescue her. Grandma immediately scooped her up and noticed a tiny drop of blood on the toddler’s knee and looked on in concern as her crying became screams.
Distraught, Grandma placed the toddler on her knee and tried to console her. When there was no sign that the screaming would subside, grandma responded like most grandmas would and said; “Let’s go and find a treat, that will cheer you up, would you like one of grandma’s cookies, or what about a sweet from grandpa’s lolly jar”.
Immediately, her little granddaughter snuffled back her tears and nodded in approval indicating that yes that would make me feel better. After reaching into the lolly jar, it took mere seconds for the sweet taste to work its magic and with the sore knees forgotten, she ran off to play.
All grandma was trying to do was to stop the crying, resume peace in her house and make her little granddaughter feel good again. It’s a natural response when soothing someone in pain.
However, let’s take a look at what happens next. Sweets are carbohydrates and they stimulate amylase in saliva, a digestive enzyme that breaks the carbohydrates down into simple sugars. As the toddler swallows, this process continues and it stimulates the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that processes different tastes.
Recognising something ‘sweet’, the body then floods the toddlers’ system with feel-good chemicals like dopamine. This is similar to addictive street drugs like cocaine, so by feeding the toddler sugar, her grandma is teaching her to use food as comfort, specifically bad food and THAT lesson could change the entire course of her life.
As our brains develop, we create neural pathways that connect words, behaviours and emotions together. If we are raised being given a lolly or cookie each time we fell over and hurt ourselves, we formed neural pathways that connected the soothing of physical pain with sugar. We also started to connect sugar to feelings of love as the treat is often accompanied by a hug and affection. It doesn’t take long for these neural pathways to become a driver of our subconscious behaviour.
That is why if we fast forward 40 years, that little girl grew up to become a comfort eater, someone who turns to food to soothe her sadness, her stress and her loneliness. Since those early childhood moments began, this food as comfort lesson may have been repeated thousands of times and she is now hardwired to respond to ‘pain’ with eating sugar.
The moment we begin eating solid foods, the word ‘treat’ enters our food language. This ‘innocent’ little word leads to more destruction than any other word associated with food on the planet; it derails diets, causes self-sabotaging behaviour, is a leading cause of emotional eating and it contributes to global and (even worse) childhood obesity.
But it doesn’t stop there, ‘treat’ foods tend to be sweetly oriented and this has led to the environmental destruction of our rainforests as chocolate and cookie makers seek cheap palm oil. Childhood slavery is still used in the Ivory Coast to help produce cheap chocolate and modern adult slavery still exists in the Dominion Republic where most of the world’s sugar cane originates. Then there is the fact that the vast majority of ‘treat’ foods contain genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) that come from ‘glyphosate ready crops’, which have recently been added to the ‘probable carcinogen’ list. These crops pollute an estimated 444 million acres of land globally effecting delicate ecosystems, drinking water and endangering animal and human health.
This is why I cringe whenever I hear the word ‘treat’. Given what it represents in terms of destruction of our planet and our health coupled with slavery, it is something we should avoid, yet it is engrained into us from early childhood.
Well-intentioned parents and grandparents loved to ‘treat’ us with food, it made us and them feel loved, special and ‘good’, however they were unaware of the long-term consequences of this ‘innocent’ word.
And it is not just our immediate family, whole societies help enforce this word. If we did something wonderful at school like win an award, or score a goal at the football field coaches and schools may offer a sugar ‘reward’, which also sets up a neural connection that stimulates the reward centre of our brain. Eventually, we become triggered to ‘reward’ ourselves with a treat after a long day at work, or to celebrate a promotion and these patterns become a double-edged sword; we began to use food as both a reward and to cheer ourselves up from emotional and physical pain.
It is hard to avoid embedding this behaviour further when both positive and negative emotions become triggers for treats.
The negative triggers seem more compelling though because when we are feeling low we’ll do anything to feel better, so food becomes our ‘friend’ to protect us against feelings of loneliness, boredom, stress, unhappiness, living an unfilled life, feeling trapped or feeling worthless.
There is a simple solution to avoid this destructive pattern of behaviour in our children and I believe it begins with a cultural and societal shift away from the using the word ‘treat’ when describing food.
Instead, we should use loving acts to reward children like watching a movie together, playing at the park etc. Anything that involves quality time and creates memories. Reaching for a bottle of bubbles is more magical to a child than sugar!
A cookie does not replace physical affection or time spent with your child, and teaching a child to reward themselves in positive ways is one of the greatest parenting gifts we can give.
A useful acronym for ‘treat’ to remember is:
R response (to)
A angst (or)
I created this acumen to remind us that the word ‘treat’ hardwires our conscious and subconscious mind to seek bad foods to offset emotions. My solution is a simple one: STOP USING THAT WORD and start to break this destructive cycle.
Then we can find better ways to comfort that toddler with the bleeding knee, ones that will not haunt her into her later life where she will struggle with weight and addiction and wonder why she just can’t seem to resist all that bad food.
Deborah Murtagh x