In this era of constant distraction (digital media, hectic schedules, pressure to perform at work, you name it), we all struggle to maintain focus and clarity. Adults have it hard enough, but when you add a child’s naturally high energy levels, it’s no wonder we’re seeing such an increase in hyperactive, emotionally reactive behavior in kids.
We could point to a dozen changes in our culture that explain this increase, but many of them are out of our control. There’s no way a parent can fight against the prevalence of digital devices or our dependence on them. But there is one thing we have control over that can make a huge difference in our children’s behavior: diet.
Making an effort to remove sugar from your child’s diet is a major change you can make right now that will help them tremendously in all aspects of their lives.
What Sugar Does to the Body
When a child eats sugary foods (keep in mind, many foods are higher in sugar than you might expect) or drinks a soda, their body experiences an instant spike in glucose levels. High blood sugar (glucose) creates a burst of adrenaline that causes hyperactive behavior. Of course, that’s not to say that sugar is the primary cause of hyperactivity. What studies do show, however, is that everyone metabolizes sugar differently. So kids who are already prone to attention issues or have trouble focusing can be even more sensitive to the effects of sugar on their body and brain.
More Bad News About Sugar
The negative effects your child experiences when they consume large amounts of sugar don’t stop at increased hyperactivity. One UCLA study found that sugar can compromise the ability of cells in the brain to communicate. This is why most of us feel “foggy” or “drained” after a sugar high. Our brain has actually slowed down!
Imagine your child returning from a sugary lunch and being forced to jump right into algebra or a literature class. Those subjects can be hard enough without a sluggish brain and an inability to focus. Of course they’re going to start acting out in frustration or inattention. Their brain is working against them.
More than just focus, sugar can reduce the function of the brain’s hippocampus—the area responsible for memory. So now, on top of trying to focus in a brain fog or act out with increased adrenaline in their body, your child is struggling to remember the things they learned when they weren’t in a sugar haze. It’s essentially a recipe for disaster. All because of the cookies in their lunch or the soda they washed it down with.
So How Can You Help Your Child?
Cutting sugar completely from your child’s diet is certainly the best way to prevent these negative effects. But removing sugar altogether can be a bit unrealistic for most people. Instead, we suggest small tweaks that build into big changes.
First, try to be a good example for your kids. Even if it isn’t obvious, they are watching you to model good choices. Choose the healthy, sugar-free option as often as you can. This can be as simple as ordering water or unsweetened tea at dinner instead of a soda. Bigger changes should include replacing candy as a treat during sweets-heavy holidays. Fill birthday goody bags with stickers or tiny toys rather than candy.
It is also helpful to make your food at home as often as possible. Restaurants—especially fast food restaurants—are notorious for adding extra sugar when it isn’t necessary. Use the time in your kitchen as an opportunity to teach your kids about nutrition and the elements of a healthy meal. The more they understand nutrients, the easier it will be for them to make the healthy choice when you’re not around.
Finally, keep an eye on the unique ways your child reacts to sugar. As we mentioned, every “body” is different. You may find that your child shows worse symptoms in the morning if they have a sugary breakfast. Or they might be totally fine with eating sugar after dinner. Once you learn the ways your child’s body processes sugar you can take a more moderate approach so you don’t have to completely restrict them from sugar all the time.
Making these changes to your diet certainly won’t be easy. Who doesn’t love a sugary treat? But if you commit to making them slowly and consistently, you’ll start to see some incredible differences in behavior. And as the positive changes start to add up, you’ll be even more excited to cut sugar wherever you can.