Is sugar really that bad for our kids? This is a question that many parents ask. I personally discovered that if my son eats anything containing sugar, it won’t be long before he’s bouncing off the walls. Even when I think that I have fed him food that is healthy, i.e. low in sugar, his hyperactive behaviour afterwards is a dead giveaway on the sugar content.
Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that is found naturally in fruits and grains. Problems tend to occur however when we eat sugars that are added to our food. And this is where the issues lie as our modern day diet tends to be made up of food containing these added sugars.
Most sugars are hidden in food in the form of fructose, dextrose, corn syrup, honey, barley malt, sucrose and evaporated cane juice, just to name a few. Sugar is sneaking into our food under so many different names that most of the time, we don’t even realise that it’s there. It is found in many of our pantry staples like ketchup, peanut butter, spreads and condiments, processed meats and even in infant milk formulas. In fact, we frequently feed our young ones foods that contain the highest amounts of sugar - breakfast cereals and commercially baked goods.
The next time you go shopping, remember to read the labels. There’s a high chance that there’s some form of sugar in most of what you are buying. And remember, the ingredient listed first contributes to the largest amount and the last contributes the least. So if sugar is one of the first few ingredients that you read on the label, that should set off warning bells.
Why should we minimise sugar in our kids’ diets?
Kids love anything sweet but sugar has numerous detrimental effects on them.
Mood and behavioural disorder
When we eat sugar, it is converted to glucose in the body, which is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. This results in a sudden increase in blood sugar levels. The pancreas then creates insulin to normalise the blood sugar levels as insulin carries glucose to the cells to be used for energy. The rapid rise of insulin causes a sudden drop in the blood sugar levels known as hypoglycaemia. This then causes the brain to produce excessive glutamate that causes havoc in the brain and nervous system. This results in anxiety, panic attacks, anger and depression.
The American Nutrition Association found hypoglycaemia to be one of the most likely causes of hyperactivity in kids and their inability to sit still and concentrate.
Our kids eat to get nutrients into their bodies so they can grow well. However, sugar is an anti-nutrient. When they eat refined sugar, which contains no nutrients, they have to draw out minerals such as magnesium and zinc from their own body’s reserves to metabolise the sugar. This can lead to chronic mineral deficiencies, which cause mood and behavioural disorders like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety, anger, irritability, short attention span and learning difficulties.
Dr Stephen Schoenthaler observed from his study that there was a 54% drop in antisocial behaviour in juvenile detention camps when kids were put on a low sugar diet. Dr. Schoenthaler is a Professor at the California State University in Stanislaus and has long argued that there is a link between a healthy diet and decreased aggressive behaviour, as well as with increased IQ and school performance.
Sugar compromises the immune system and makes our kids more susceptible to infections. Research shows that drinking two cans of soda (equivalent to 20 teaspoons of sugar) can suppress the immune system for two to five hours with the effects starting less than 30 minutes after ingestion. So if your kids meet a virus during this time, their immune system may not be able to fight the invader.
Sugar competes with Vitamin C in the body as they both require insulin to travel into cells. Dr Linus Pauling, one of the most influential chemists in history and ranks among the most important scientists of the 20th century, found that Vitamin C is important for our immune system as it is needed by our white blood cells to engulf viruses and bacteria. Eating sugar of any kind means immune-boosting Vitamin C has no means of transport to get into cells, reducing the body’s defenses.
Particularly during an infection, it is wise to eliminate sugars even in the form of fresh fruit juice, as this will further weaken the immune system.
Increased risk of asthma
Research by Dr Sonja Kiersten, a researcher from the Nestle Institute in Lausanne, Switzerland, found that a diet high in sugar is linked to asthma. Asthma is triggered by any inflammation of the airways and Dr. Kiersten’s research made the connection between processed sugar consumption and over-reactive airways.
When too much insulin is released, which happens when we eat added sugars, the inflammation cascade is triggered through the production of arachidonic acid, which is the building block for pro-inflammatory eicosanoids; the hormone that promotes inflammation in the body. Consequently, consuming high levels of sugar can cause inflamed and over-reactive airways, which may lead to asthma.
Inflammation caused by sugar also plays a role in conditions such as eczema and allergies. If your child suffers from any of these conditions, a low sugar diet is highly recommended.
Impaired brain function
Neurological studies found that high blood sugar, short- and long-term, may harm the brain and worsen memory. Research suggests that a diet that is high in sugar reduces a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), impairing people’s abilities to remember and learn.
In a paper from 1986, Dr Schoenthaler describes how one million kids improved their test scores when they eliminated sugar and white flour from their diets.
Sugar is linked to obesity in more ways than one. Aside from the fact that sugar is high in calories, statistics have shown that it is strongly associated with obesity, especially amongst kids. It’s also addictive, as it affects the hunger hormone, ghrelin, impairing the child's judgment of how much to eat. This then causes them to eat more than they actually should.
Need some help in reducing your kids’ sugar cravings?
Reducing your kids’ sugar intake is a big challenge, especially if they have become accustomed to eating sweet foods and always crave them. Addressing the cause of the cravings is a much better approach than forcing them to stop eating sugar. Sugar cravings often indicate that your child has dysbiosis - the situation where there are more harmful than friendly bacteria in the gut - and this is where we should focus our remedies.
Fermented vegetables, which can be easily made at home, are packed with beneficial bacteria that will reduce sugar cravings by rebalancing the gut flora. Your kids will also thank you in the long-term because the sour taste will help to develop their taste buds.
Mix small amounts in their favourite food, starting with a teaspoon of the juice from the fermented vegetables and gradually work up to a teaspoon of the solid vegetable. Don't be surprised if they end up loving it!
You can also give your kids probiotics, which are live beneficial bacteria to treat dysbiosis. This will help to rebalance their gut with "good" bacteria.
If these remedies don’t help in reducing their sugar cravings, you can give them chromium as this will regulate their blood sugar levels. In one study, participants experienced a 23% decrease in blood sugar levels by consuming chromium.
The verdict on sugar
While there are so many reasons to limit sugar in our kids’ diets, the most important one is that it will not only create happier, more balanced kids, but it will also make us happier parents!
Sugar has many pseudonyms. The list below, although not exhaustive, should be able to assist you when trying to spot the (sometimes) well-hidden ingredient:
Agave nectar, Barbados sugar, Barley malt, Beet sugar, Blackstrap molasses, Brown rice syrup, Brown sugar, Buttered syrup, Cane juice crystals, Cane sugar, Caramel, Carob syrup, Castor sugar, Confectioner’s sugar, Corn syrup, Corn syrup solids, Crystalline fructose, Date sugar, Demerara sugar, Dextran, Dextrose, Diastatic malt, Diatase, Ethyl maltol, Evaporated cane juice, Florida crystals, Fructose, Fruit juice, Fruit juice concentrate, Galactose, Glucose, Glucose solids, Golden sugar, Golden syrup, Grape sugar, High- fructose corn syrup, Honey, Icing sugar, Invert sugar, Lactose, Malt syrup, Maltose, Maple syrup, Molasses, Muscovado sugar, Organic raw sugar, Panocha, Raw sugar, Refiner’s syrup, Rice syrup, Sorghum syrup, Sucrose, Treacle, Turbinado sugar, Yellow sugar.
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