By Lidia de Klerk-Venter RD(SA)

How many times have you heard (or even said yourself): “excuse my child’s hyperactivity – he had too much sugar”?

Is there actually something like a sugar rush and has it ever been scientifically proven?

Scientists did extensive studies of the effect that sugar has on the cognition or behaviour in children in 1995. The studies included a variety of criteria, including sugar and placebo (artificial sweetener) groups, different genders and different age groups of children. These studies were also required to blind the researchers, parents and children to the conditions, i.e. no one knew who consumed sugar or who consumed the placebo. They concluded that sugar does not affect the cognitive performance or behaviour of children. Consuming either sugar or the placebo had a similar effect on the children’s behaviour.

So what explains your child’s behaviour changes at occasions where they consume more sugar?

Scientists believe that the circumstances of many of these occasions involve more excitement e.g., a group of children playing together when someone’s birthday is celebrated. Another possibility is that the parents already have a strong belief that there is an association with sugar consumption and behaviour. This along with their expectancy of hyperactive behaviour when more sugar is consumed may cloud their judgement.

So while this is a myth, what is still true about excessive sugar consumption in children?

Fact #1: Excessive exposure to sugar for long periods of time will increase their risk for tooth decay.

→ Recommendation: when sugar is offered to children, consider options where the treat is smaller and doesn’t expose the teeth to sugar for a long period of time. Avoid lollipops and toffees as far as possible. For babies or toddlers who consume milk or other drinks from a bottle, avoid leaving them to fall asleep with the bottle in their mouth.

Fact #2: Regular exposure to high sugar, high calorie foods from a young age increases the risk of obesity and lifestyle diseases as children get older.

→ Recommendation: Children learn how to eat and behave around food from a very young age. Ensure that you model the behaviour that you want your child to follow. Have nutritious foods available at mealtimes and as snacks in between meals. Offer natural foods most of the time – i.e. fruit and vegetables and lower sugar dairy options. Avoid encouraging excessive snacking. This may lower your child’s appetite for their food at a meal times. Set the example by using treat foods only on special occasions.

Fact #3: There is something like having “a sweet tooth”. We all have a genetic marker for sweet taste perceptions.

→ Recommendation: Those who genetically have “a sweet tooth” may prefer sweet foods over blander or bitter tasting foods (like vegetables). This does not mean that such a person will necessarily have an excessive intake of sugar. Always offer sweet foods as a treat and keep your own and your children’s intake of treats to a minimum.

Fact #4: Sugar is addictive. The intake of sugar lights up our brain’s “reward centre” which may lead to compulsive behaviour.

→ Recommendation: Don’t excessively restrict sugar in children. They may feel the need to binge eat when they do get access to it which can be very harmful if this behaviour continues into adulthood. Offering small amounts every now and again is perfectly safe.

Fact #5: Emotional/ comfort eating is real.

→ Recommendations:
Avoid always reverting to sugary, high calorie or treat foods when rewarding or comforting your child. The behaviour of “eating for your emotions” is learnt behaviour and can be avoided.
Don’t force your child to finish their meal to have dessert.
Reward and comfort your child more often with activities that they enjoy than always offering foods to deal with emotions.

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