Marshmallows, Sugar Hoarding, and the Brain

I recently was assisting at my child’s pre-school and two of the children invented a game called “sugar hoarding.” It entailed filling a dump truck with sand (sugar) and bringing it to the “red castle made of all lollipops with no sticks.” (The sticks were deemed useless as they didn’t have sugar).White-Sugar-Cubes

Why are kids (and many adults) obsessed with sugar?

Sugar tastes good and sugar affects the brain.

Dr. Nicole Avena, neuroscientist researcher, author of Why Diets Fail, as well as many other neuroscientists, have discovered sugar causes levels of dopamine to surge in our brains. Dopamine is considered the “reward center” in our brain, and is associated with feelings of pleasure.

Knowing this, as a person who likes sweets, as a Mom of a child who loves sweets, and as a Psychologist who assists clients recover from disordered eating, helps me bring objective awareness to where and why we get “hooked” on sugar. There is nothing morally weak about liking sugar or eating sugar- our brains are wired to enjoy it, crave it, and, according to some, become addicted to it.

Having this awareness does not mean I have joined the “No Sugar” brigade. Nor will I join any other Diet camp that promotes a certain way of eating other than moderation, three meals a day, snacks as needed, and variety. It’s just too crazy-making. For people who like sweets and anxious (Super) Moms, this is unsustainable and a recipe for failure. For people who are already prone to black-and-white thinking in order to manage the complexity of life, going extreme with no sugar often becomes a disaster, an eating disorder, or an unending roller coaster of obsession, perfectionism, and unsustainable attempts to feel okay with one’s self by imposing an external solution on an internal problem.

However, that does not mean I give my child ice-cream for breakfast or marshmallows on demand!


There was a classic study in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by Walter Mischel, a professor at Stanford University in which young children were offered one marshmallow right away or two marshmallows if they waited 15 minutes. You can watch a painful and endearing video of children participating in this study here:

In follow-up studies, researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the rewards tended to have better life outcomes, according to test scores, educational attainment, and other life measures. This ability to wait, although it may seem an easy task, is quite the challenge for children who do not yet have the executive function (the front part of the brain that regulates the ability to see cause and effect) developed.

Executive Function

I just finished reading The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD in which this executive function and other parts of the brain are likened to the “unfinished upstairs” part. They state “Just imagine the downstairs of a house that is complete and fully furnished, but when you look up at the second floor, you see that it is unfinished and littered with construction tools. You can even see patches of the sky where the roof hasn’t been completed yet. That’s your child’s upstairs brain – a work in progress.”  They write:

Your upstairs brain…is made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts…Unlike your more basic downstairs brain, the upstairs brain is more evolved and can give you a fuller perspective on your world…This is where more intricate mental processes take place, like thinking, imagining, and planning…it is responsible for producing characteristics we hope to see in our kids: Sound decision-making and planning, Control over emotions and body, Self-understanding, Empathy, and Morality. 1

So how do we help our children (and ourselves) wait before eating the marshmallow (chocolate cake, ice-cream)? How do we develop and cultivate this part of the brain so our impulse for pleasure (sugar, sex, alcohol) can be moderated with our big picture vision of what we value for ourselves, our bodies, our relationships, and our life?

Mr. Mischel (the “Marshmallow man”) says:

…there are two warring parts of the brain: a hot part demanding immediate gratification (the limbic system), and a cool, goal-oriented part (the prefrontal cortex). The secret of self-control, he says, is to train the prefrontal cortex to kick in first.

To do this, use specific if-then plans, like ‘If it’s before noon, I won’t check email’ or ‘If I feel angry, I will count backward from 10.’ Done repeatedly, this buys a few seconds to at least consider your options. The point isn’t to be robotic and never eat chocolate mousse again. It’s to summon self-control when you want it, and be able to carry out long-term plans. We don’t need to be victims of our emotions, we have a prefrontal cortex that allows us to evaluate whether or not we like the emotions that are running us.’

Simple, but not easy! Doctors Siegel and Payne Bryson offer a couple of child friendly strategies that are excellent practice for adults as well:

1. Play the tape out and exercise your upstairs brain

Instead of giving in to the immediate answer, exercise the upstairs brain. For example, if your child finds a snugglycute-grizzly-bear-clipart stuffed animal on the floor of the library, instead of saying “No, that’s not yours,” try saying “Hmmm… I wonder where that came from? Do you think someone dropped it and forgot it here? How would you feel if you left your stuffed animal at the library by mistake? Shall we see if there is a lost-and-found and then we can check back in a week if no-one comes back for it?”

Or, if you are struggling with recovering from bingeing on sugary food, instead of acting out of impulsive habit and eating a whole box of cookies, play the tape out (for those of us who still remember cassettes 🙂 )  and say to yourself

“What happens when I eat all those cookies?”

Hmmm… I feel guilty.

“And then what?”

Then I feel sleepy and depressed.

“And then what?”

Then I feel ashamed and don’t want to go out with my friends or show up to work.

“Ahhhhh, ok, so it’s not going to really give you the sweetness that you want right now- it’s actually going to give you a bitter experience of self-loathing. How else can I help you find sweetness and comfort right now?”

2. Move your body

boy-getting-socksAnother way to bring in the upstairs part of your brain is to move your body. This helps your downstairs brain re-find a place of willingness and flexibility when you are feeling rigid and resistant. For example, when your child is saying “I don’t want to put my socks on!” and you want to wrestle them to just get the freakin socks on their feet, you can instead say “Let’s go all the wiggles out of your feet first!” and then jump around for a few minutes. This allows them to calm their “downstairs” brain from flooding the upstairs enough to allow some willingness back in.

In the urge-to-binge scenario, it might be to leave the kitchen and take a walk around the block or dance around your house and move the feelings of anger, fear, or anxiety. Though this may sound silly, moving your body can help your amygdala (the part of the brain that is super activated in fear and anger) calm back down enough for you to access your “upstairs” brain again.

So…in summary,

  • 1. Sugar is not morally bad- there is a reason why we and/or our children want it.
  • 2. We can teach ourselves and our children moderation and pausing on impulsivity in order to become and be the balanced, moral, ethical, empathic people we want to be.
  • 3. It is never too early or too late to cultivate neural pathways in your (and your child’s brain) that can help integrate the upstairs and downstairs of your “house!”


1.  Siegel, Daniel J, MD and and Payne Bryson,PhD Tina, The Whole Brain Child, New York: Delacorte Random House, 2011.

2. Drukerman, Pamela, “Learning How to Exert Self-Control,” NYT Sunday Book Review, SEPT. 12, 2014.


NPR “Why Sugar Makes us Feel So Good”

Urist, Jacoba, “What the Marshmallow Test Really Teaches About Self-Control,” The Atlantic, Sept 24, 2014.

Stanford Marshmallow experiment,

4 responses

  1. Fascinating information! Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is a wonderful article on sugar. I love sugar and always have, and I have daily struggles deciding whether or not to give it up completely or to eat in moderation.

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