Ever notice how your child will crave sweet snacks during situations that require lots of self-control?

Maybe your child has been known to ask for a cookie during homework time or candy when trying to get through a long, boring reading assignment?

According to science, there’s something called the brain-glucose link that causes your child to crave sweets – just as they are revving up their willpower muscle into high gear.

This article will explain the connection between your child’s willpower (aka self-control, grit, perseverance) and sweet snacks. In order for your child’s willpower muscle to continue chugging along in high gear, it needs some sort of fuel, but you don’t necessarily need to give your child sweets. I’ll also update you on some healthy alternatives so your child’s willpower can function effectively AND they stay healthy.

The Brain-Glucose Link

Recently, a pair of scientists wanted to investigate the link between glucose (a simple sugar that is an important energy source in living organisms and is a component of many carbohydrates) and willpower in kids. To do this, researchers asked the children in an elementary school to skip breakfast one morning. When they came to school, half of the kids were given a healthy breakfast and half were given nothing at all to eat.

As you can probably guess, at measurement point #1, the kids that ate breakfast retained more of the information taught that morning and were rated by their teachers to have behaved better than the kids that didn’t get any breakfast.

The kids that didn’t have any breakfast that morning had denied their willpower muscle of precious nutrients, which was the reason why they didn’t have enough self-control to pay attention in class and to control their impulsive behaviors when needed.

At this point in the morning, the researchers gave all the kids a surgery snack. After a few more hours, at measurement point #2, can you guess which group performed better? Actually, both groups performed about the same – the differences noticed in the morning seemed to have disappeared entirely – simply because all the kids had enough fuel for their willpower muscles to function properly!

This is just one of many experiments conducted over the past several decades that shows a connection between glucose levels and willpower. Todd Heatherton, a noted social neuroscientist, explains the biological activity that goes on in the brain during the glucose-willpower situation:

“Apparently ego depletion shifts activity from one part of the brain to the other. Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. That may help explain why depleted people feel things more intensely than normal: Certain parts of the brain go into high gear just as others taper off.

As the body uses glucose during self-control, it starts to crave sweet things to eat – which is bad news for people hoping to use their self-control to avoid sweets. When people have more demands for self-control in their daily lives, their hunger for sweets increases. It’s not a simple matter of wanting food more – they seem to be specifically hungry for sweets.”

Our bodies tend to crave sugary sweets when glucose levels are low because this is the fastest source to raising glucose levels. In research labs, it’s very common for researchers looking to quickly increase glucose levels to give their participants surgery drinks.

Willpower researchers are fond of giving sweet treats to participants because it meets the goal of the experiment, but what is the best way to increase glucose on an everyday basis for our kids?

Sugar Works In The Lab – Not In Your Child’s Diet

Not only have experiments shown that sugar provides a quick glucose hit that serves to increase willpower rapidly in the lab, but these experiments have also demonstrated that this sugar high is very fleeting.

A soda or candy bar might give your child the needed boost required to get through the last 15 minutes of writing a book report or piano practice, but they’ll quickly experience a willpower “crash” as soon as the glucose gets depleted again.

The best way to keep your child’s willpower muscle functioning at peak performance long-term is to keep your child’s glucose levels at a steady level throughout the day using healthy foods, not sugar.

The body converts just about all sorts of food into glucose – but at different rates. Foods that are converted quickly are said to have a high glycemic index. These types of foods include starchy carbohydrates like white bread, potatoes, white rice – basically, just about every easy-to-grab snack item.

On the other hand, foods with a lower glycemic index help maintain steady glucose levels – and steady willpower functioning. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, cheese, fish, meat, olive oil, and other “good fats” are foods that associated with a lower glycemic index and are better for your kids in the long run.

Getting your child into the habit of eating healthy meals and snacks at regular intervals throughout the day enables them to take control of their willpower – and talk to them about the important connection between what they’re eating and their willpower muscle. Teach them that if they want to play their best during their baseball game or perform at peak performance during the marching band competition, then they will need to pay attention to refueling their willpower muscle with healthy foods.

Note: There might be times you want to quickly boost your child’s willpower using sugar, but this tactic should be used only for emergencies. For example, providing a quick boost of energy before an important math test or track meet might be the exception to the rule.

Take Home Message

Part of teaching your child to be autonomous – or to take control of their own decision-making – is to teach them that they are also in control of their own willpower.

We want our kids to dream big and make big goals for themselves, and the only way they will achieve these goals is by maintaining their willpower muscle. Their goals are attainable by achieving small steps along the way, and the only way they will have the self-control needed to focus on these small goals is by using their willpower muscle appropriately.

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