04/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Childhood Obesity: What's Eating Our Kids?

Millions of American kids are seriously overweight. The reason isn't just what they're eating -- it's what's eating them. Childhood obesity is a symptom of deeper problems with American families.

Childhood is not all fun and games -- never has been, never will be. Kids struggle with fear and anxiety; they suffer disappointments and losses; they get their hopes dashed and feelings hurt. Kids are teased, sometimes tormented, by their peers. Kids worry about everything from school grades to wearing the right shoes to being accepted by the cool kids. Kids feel lonely, sad, fearful, and angry -- and more. Kids are affected by their parents' job losses and financial distress; they are helpless in the face of family abuse and violence; they are collateral damage in millions of divorces each year. Is it any wonder that kids take their comfort where they can find it -- in food?

Sugar is a proven painkiller in children. Physicians feed glucose and sucrose solutions to infants to reduce the pain of inoculations and blood tests. According to a report in the British Medical Journal, sugar water "triggers the release of endogenous opioids, which are the body's natural response to pain stimuli." (BBC News, 1999) Brazilian researchers reported similar results in 2009, adding that dextrose (sugar) combined with skin-to-skin contact (hugs) works even better. (Reuters Health, 2009)

The connection between sweet taste and human comfort begins at birth. Mother's milk tastes like sugar water -- it's a milky, translucent liquid that is remarkably sweet. When babies suckle at the breast, they're drinking in a soothing sweet liquid while cradled in loving arms. A nursing infant naturally associates sweetness and human touch with comfort and soothing.

And what's the first thing a mother usually does when her baby cries? She holds her infant and offers something for the baby's mouth: her breast, a bottle, a pacifier, or sometimes her fingertip.

As the infant becomes a toddler, the basic remedy for distress doesn't change: When a child is unhappy and/or crying, adults are likely to offer a hug and/or a treat. In other words, children naturally seek relief in human comfort and/or something sweet to eat.

But for today's kids, human comfort often isn't available: both parents are working; the single mom is holding down two jobs to make ends meet; many kids are living in homes where their caretakers are simply overwhelmed or too stressed to comfort themselves, much less the kids.

All kids learn some form of self-soothing as part of their development -- that's normal. Some kids suck their thumbs; others cling to a blankie or favorite toy; some twirl a lock of their hair; others rock themselves when distressed. Most kids use food to self-soothe. If you can't get a hug, get a candy bar. Sugar and refined carbs are highly effective mood-altering substances -- legal, cheap, accessible, and socially acceptable.

Several years ago, 60 Minutes televised an interview with legendary guitarist, Eric Clapton. "When did you start using drugs?" Ed Bradley asked the musician, who is now clean and sober.

"When I was five or six," Clapton replied.

"You were using drugs when you were a kid?" the surprised Bradley asked.

"Sugar," Clapton replied. "I ate sugar whenever and wherever I could get it. Candy. The sugar bowl. Whatever I could find."

"You switched to alcohol and drugs when you were a teen?" Bradley asked.

"Yeah," Clapton nodded.

Eric Clapton is not the only alcoholic/addict to report use of sugar to soothe the pains of childhood. Countless alcoholics report similar experiences. Sugar coats the nerves, takes the edge off, and quells anxiety. The connection between sugar and alcoholism is an aspect of addiction that has yet to be fully investigated by experts, but ample evidence can be found.

But it's not just alcoholics -- hundreds of thousands of girls and women with eating disorders will attest to the mood-altering effects of sugar and carbs. Food was their best friend, helping them cope with life -- until it got out of control and became a full-blown addiction. Bulimia, anorexia, and compulsive over-eating have reached pandemic proportions in our country -- almost always beginning with childhood use of food to self-soothe.

I applaud Michelle Obama's new initiative, "Let's Move," to combat childhood obesity. But as she outlined her approach and listed the experts she's inviting to participate, it's clear that the First Lady's program is missing something critically important. Labeling foods more clearly, reducing advertising aimed at kids, curtailing TV time, and altering school lunch programs won't fix the problem. More information isn't what's needed -- we already know what foods are healthy for our kids.

The problem is much deeper than nutrition experts and health professionals recognize. Millions of kids are well on their way to becoming sugar and carbohydrate addicts. Many are addicted already. Making their drug harder to get will simply drive them to seek new ways to get their sugar fix, or find a new fix (excessive TV, video games, computer games, teen and pre-teen sex, binge drinking, huffing inhalants, internet porn, among other self-medicating activities).

Deep emotional hunger is the core problem. It's skin hunger, heart hunger, and soul hunger that makes our kids look for love in all the wrong places.

Mother Teresa often remarked that the spiritual hunger she saw in the West was far worse than any physical hunger she saw on the streets of Calcutta. American kids are spiritually and emotionally starved -- for unconditional love and acceptance, for meaningful face time with family, frequent hugs, patient help with homework, loved ones who listen and understand. Kids are like bank accounts -- they grow in direct proportion to the amount of interest paid.

At the heart of America's childhood obesity epidemic is a deep, aching emotional and spiritual hunger. That's why our kids are fat. It's not just what they're eating -- it's what's eating them.