Sugar has gotten a bad rep in our culture today – I’ve heard it been compared to drugs and poison. No wonder parents struggle to allow their children to have a good relationship with all food, including sugar. Any well-meaning parent is going to feel bad and want to restrict sugar if they think it will cause their child more harm than good.
Putting the addictive side of sugar aside for a minute (although researchers and I have lots to say to debunk that too). I want to talk specifically to the idea of sugar causing hyperactivity or a “sugar high.”
If you have ever been to a 5 year old birthday party or class party the shrieks and shrills coming from those children are like nails on a chalkboard. If I had a dollar for every parent, educator or person who has said “sugar high,” I’d be rich. I often wonder where these rumors ever originated?
Does sugar really cause sugar highs in children?
The answer in short is…No, Nope and No! The research is pretty concrete that sugar does not effect behaviors in children. So where did this come from and why do we keep talking about it? Did we ever stop to think that having a party involving your most favorite friends might bring enough excitement to constitute them being wound up?
Are you still not convinced? Research says the same thing.
Dating back as far as the early 90s, a study done by the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology showed that sugar had no bearing on the child’s behavioral or cognitive tests. You want to know what did change if a child was reported as more hyperactive? The parents thinking their child had more sugar. Half the children were given sugar while the other half were not – the parents who were told their child was given sugar reported rating a high level of hyperactivity than the parents that were told their child did not receive sugar.
Even more interesting, the parents that were told their child was given sugar were observed to notice they were more likely to stay close to their children and correct behaviors. Interesting, how real the placebo effect is, right?
When the Journal of American Medical Association did a review of the 16 studies that talked about “sugar highs,” their conclusion was, “sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children.”
What does this mean for parents.
Give up the Negative Thoughts Around Sugar
Think about how your children will hear what you are saying. If they are constantly hearing about sugar highs – they will start to associate the negative thoughts around sugar. Rather, treat all foods as neutral foods. This means not referring to healthy or unhealthy, junk food vs. good food. Children who eats these foods don’t have any emotions (positive or negative), they will eat them until they are full and stop. However, when they feel guilt and shame around food they are more likely to eat the food and feel bad about it.
Practical Application: Rather than talking negatively about those foods or the behaviors they might have around those foods, try saying instead, “Sure, you can have those cookies, but let’s combine it with something that is more filling. Would you like milk or a cheese stick with them?”
Sugar is Just a Molecule
Sugar is a molecule called sucrose. The chemical make up is C12H22O11.
The three main types of sugar we consume are sucrose, fructose and lactose. Each of these types of sugar break down into glucose or fructose to give our body the energy it needs. Each molecule looks very similar in structure. Yes, it’s way more complicated, but that’s just a brief overview. Being overly concerned about one particular type of sugar shouldn’t be your main focus, rather focus on providing a variety.
Pratical Application: Sugar is a VERY complex topic and how it breaks down in the body is even more complex. Just understand that the next time someone demonizes it! Enough said!
Do Not Restrict
Some of the research we are seeing is that mice are only given sugar intermittently. What this says in laments terms is that if your child does not regularly consume sugar, they may want to have the food more often and eat it in larger quantities. Restricting sugar therefore will not help in the long run, but rather hinder their ability to regulate how much they take in.
Pratical Application: Allow your child to have foods with sugar in them. Serve them as part of a meal or snack so they don’t feel restricted. A child that regularly gets these foods and doesn’t feel restricted will have cookies and broccoli on the table and feel okay to eat both.
Serve a Variety of Food
We know that how our bodies breakdown sugar is hugely dependent on what we eat with the food. Sugar eaten alone without protein or fat will breakdown very quickly, get used up, and leave us feeling hungry very soon after. However, serving a food with sugar in it with a meal will help to mix it up with all the other nutrients and breakdown at a slower rate.
Practical Application: If you child wants to eat gummy bears they got from their friends party, serve the gummy bears with another snack that will be more filling and will slow the breakdown of the gummy bears. Example: Gummy bears, apples and peanut butter
Do you want to know more about what a balanced meal would look like? Check out my free downloadable, 5 Foods To Serve At Meal Time.
Think about the research next time you are thinking your child is on a sugar high. Is it really the sugar or is it your awareness around them eating the sugar? Are they just excited to be with their friends?