A few weeks ago, The Walt Disney Co. became the first major media company to ban ads for junk food on its television channels, radio stations and websites; a measure they hope will contribute to the fight against obesity by making these items less tempting to children.

In many ways, I believe this to be a positive and effective step. If we can limit kids’ exposure to unhealthy foods, they will be less prone to ask for them. I know many parents who find this refreshing, as one of our biggest challenges in presenting a healthy diet to kids is overcoming all the messages that promote the opposite. As we face a societal and global problem in childhood obesity, it’s nice to see major influencers like the media stepping up.

At the same time, I feel very strongly, and will say it boldly here, that it is still the parent’s responsibility to model and teach healthy behaviors in their own homes. I have two boys who watch Disney movies and programs all the time, and they still understand that sugar is a treat to be enjoyed a couple of times a week. We don’t argue about it, and the kids enjoy it when they have it. Plainly, we have set a good example, and we feel strongly that our children follow these guidelines, the same way they do with brushing their teeth, making their beds, saying please and thank you, and all the other life lessons that will make them healthy, productive adults.

With that, as a nutritionist, I know this can be a challenge if you and your family have had a different relationship to sugar. Eating sugary foods is a difficult habit to break, and there are many cultural, physiological and emotional factors involved. Let me first say, it’s nothing to feel bad about. It’s pretty normal, but if you want, you can learn to be free of the grip that sugar has on you and your kids by making a few simple changes.

You see, all “stimulants” – caffeine, sugar, nicotine, alcohol, and drugs – have an effect on your neurotransmitters – chemical messengers that TRANSMIT “thoughts” from one cell to the next, allowing brain cells to talk to each other. What's most fascinating is that how you experience emotion is dictated by certain neurotransmitters.

One such neurotransmitter you might be familiar with is serotonin. This is a hormonal neurotransmitter that promotes sleep, improves self esteem, relieves depression, diminishes cravings, and prevents agitated depression and worrying.

Keep in mind, there are natural ways to build serotonin that do not include caffeine, sugar, nicotine, drugs, or alcohol. The best ways are to exercise, eat whole foods and good sources of protein, and engage in positive activities and relationships that support a healthy mindset.

It is also good to know how serotonin works.

Imagine the power something has over you when its primary function is to make you feel happy. We all want to feel happy, and we want to feel happy NOW. So the reason you like things like caffeine, sugar, nicotine, drugs, and alcohol is because they cue the body to secrete neurotransmitters with such force that you get an immediate high.

Now, here’s the downside.

This high lasts only for a short time. In reality, your body doesn’t like to be in a state of overwhelm. Just like your computer’s hard drive has protective measures to keep it from getting overloaded and shutting down, your brain will shut down the body’s response to serotonin to keep it from going into overdrive.

In reality, as soon as your body shuts down the production of neurotransmitters, a vicious cycle starts. I call it the Crave Cycle. Here’s how it works:

When your serotonin is low, you will crave the stimulants that get you high. For example, sugar. You ingest the sugar, and your serotonin increases. Abundant serotonin makes you feel euphoric. Yeah! Then the body senses overwhelm. It shuts off the receptor sites to serotonin so that your body can’t use the hormone anymore. Then you feel low again. Yuck. This is when you feel depressed and hear the Fat Kid Mentality that says, “You are fat and unlovable.” As an antidote to these low feelings, the body sends out the message, “Give me what you gave me to feel happy – NOW!”

Welcome to your CRAVINGS!

I think you know what happens next. You listen to the body’s cues and ingest the sugar, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and/or drugs. Once again, you feel euphoric. Yeah! And the cycle continues.

These are incredibly intelligent chemicals designed to reinstate balance. Yet the body can’t sustain balance when its hard drive has been programmed to cycle between overwhelm and deficiency.

So, you’re probably asking, “How do I stop the cycle?”

Simple. You reprogram the hard drive.  

Does this mean that you and your kids need to stop eating sugar all together? For some, yes. If sugar is creating dangerous results like obesity, high or low blood sugar, ADD or ADHD or inflammatory conditions, then you may want to take a Two-Week Sugar Holiday. I describe more of this in my book Fat Is Not a Four-Letter Word.

If sugar is just something you’d like to moderate, and get to a place where you have a healthier relationship to it, then I suggest following my Go, Slow, Whoa guidelines. This basically says if you eat more “Go” foods – i.e. fruit, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains – at every meal and snack, you will start to reprogram your body to crave these foods. That’s the first step. Next, allow the family 2-3 “Slow” foods per day. These are things like whole grain pretzels, 100% fruit leathers, KIND bars popcorn, PopChips and healthier snacks that have less than 14 grams of added sugar per serving.  Lastly, limit your “Whoa” Foods – i.e. ice cream, candy bars, cookies, cakes, sodas – to 2-3 times per week, rather than every day, or even twice a day. This way, you can celebrate food and the joys of sharing treats with your kids, while also learning to limit sugar so that you can celebrate and enjoy good health.

The move by Disney to aid the path towards healthier habits is to be commended. The rest is in the hands of the people that impact our kids the most, and the ones that they look up to…their parents and caregivers.

As a speaker, author and nutritionist, Julie Hammerstein helps thousands of people every year take back their health by following a simple step-by-step plan that gets results. Creator of healthy living DVDs and author of Fat Is Not a Four-Letter Word: 14 Daily Lessons to Break Through Your "Fat Kid Mentality" and Keep the Weight Off for Life!. Through her extensive training in clinical nutrition and lifestyle coaching, she has created a winning formula that gets people to 'think' differently about health, so that they will 'act' differently to build life-long healthy habits. Julie is also the nutrition expert on Colorado’s Everyday Show and Channelmom radio. To learn more about Julie, please visit her athttp://www.juliehammerstein.com/