There is far more sugar in our diets than there used to be, and this is having a massive impact on all aspects of our health.
One of the issues that we see pretty quickly is the effect of sugar on dental health.
Other issues like type 2 diabetes take longer to present themselves.
The association between sugar and children’s behaviour has been the subject of much debate over the last few decades. Unfortunately, the sugar industry has had a voice in the debate on the health effects of sugar. This means the truth has not always come to the surface as quickly or clearly as it should have.
The science shows that a hyperactive child eats more sugar than a non-hyperactive child. Children on a high sugar diet are four times more likely to get diagnosed with ADHD than children on a low sugar diet.
There are a couple of key ways that sugar affects behaviour.
The first is to do with the glycaemic index of sugary foods.
Refined sugar (sucrose) breaks down very easily in the blood stream. Most people are aware of the high sugar content of some breakfast cereals or soft drinks, but there are other sugar sources that are not so obvious.
Foods previously considered healthy, like fruit juice, contain high levels of sugar.
Tomato ketchup has 2 teaspoons of sugar per squirt.
“Fruit” yoghurts are very high in sugar.
Then there are white flour products like white bread and pasta. These act pretty much the same way as sugar in the body and are broken down very quickly into the blood stream.
Put some jam on your toast and the sugar content rises even further.
High levels of sugar circulating in your blood cause damage to your nerves and your blood vessels, so your body wants to address high blood sugar as soon as it can.
When your body realises your blood sugar level is high, it releases insulin, a hormone which helps move glucose in to the cells. The more sugar there is, the more insulin is released. When the high levels of insulin are released it moves a whole lot of sugar out of the blood stream. That’s when your child will feel the crash in their energy. Unluckily for the teachers, this will coincide with the start of lessons for the day!
It’s also unlucky for their brain. Brains need a constant supply of glucose, not high one minute and low the next. 20% of the body’s glucose is used by the brain, so if sugar metabolism isn’t working well, your brain is not working well.
Dips in blood sugar will lead to poor attention, poor memory and aggression.
The second way sugar impacts behaviour is to do with its effect on neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are responsible for sending messages in the brain, and if they are out of balance then the brain can’t work properly.
One way that eating a diet high in sugar can lead to issues like ADHD is because sugar increase levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the child’s brain. This leads to feelings of reward and pleasure. Obviously, this is a good feeling, and the child will want more sugar to keep this feeling. Eating sugar over and over starts to blunt this dopamine response, so more sugar is required for the same feeling. Eventually, the dopamine receptors burn out, and the result is the classic symptoms of ADHD: inattentive, distractible, disorganised, hyperactive, restless and impulsive.
Eating excess sugar will also make the body use its B vitamins more quickly, and B vitamins are required to make neurotransmitters.
Excess sugar in the diet is linked to aggression, anxiety, hyperactivity, ADHD, depression, eating disorders, fatigue and learning difficulties.
Make a few changes to your child’s diet and see how their behaviour changes:
- Remove soft drinks from the house (sorry mum and dad, none for you either!)
- Switch to harder to digest forms of carbohydrate like beans, lentils or whole grains
- Choose fruits that release their sugars more slowly like apples. Grapes have mostly fast release sugar. Bananas are somewhere in between, so great for after sport
- Don’t give your kids Gatorade or other sports drinks, or jelly snakes after activity. A banana will do just fine!
If all of this sounds great in theory, but if you need help putting it into practice, join my online program: Create Cool, Calm and Cooperative kids. It is full of useful coaching videos, recipes and handouts to help you on your journey.