This is a guest post from Jess Sherman, RHN of Raising Resilience.
I hear a lot of worry and confusion from parents about sugar, like:
- Should we limit the sugar our kids eat? or will that lead to more problems?
- Is sugar really that bad? I read that sugar doesn’t really affect behavior.
- I was told we should avoid fruit because of the sugar!
- Is sugar the cause of my child’s obesity? Attention Deficit Disorder? Hyperactivity? Anxiety?
- How can I reduce sugar?! My child only eats sweet food!
Sugar has become a surprisingly contentious issue, particularly when it comes to children — The headlines about sugar are confusing, people love giving it to our kids (and our kids generally love receiving it!), and we’re made to feel like we’re depriving them of a happy childhood if we try to limit it.
Here’s the way I instruct the families I work with to consider the sugar problem:
When we consume sugar packaged as nature intended, it is a nutrient our body uses to grow and function in a healthy way. But refined sugar is something we generally eat too much of and it is of little value health-wise. RELATED: Why is White Sugar Bad for You?
The average American consumes 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day even though current guidelines suggest we limit ourselves to 6-9 teaspoons a day (that’s for adults; cut that allowance in half for a child). 😮
Sugar hides in the most unlikely of places including some yogurts, salad dressings, prepared sauces, sports drinks, and even some kinds of toothpaste so to stay within the recommended guidelines we need to be careful.
Sugar is literally everywhere.
Dangers of Too Much Sugar for Kids
So how dangerous is sugar? Well, too much undermines the health and resilience of our kids. If they’re super healthy and resilient to start off with, they can likely bounce back from a bit of sugar with little drama. But when it comes to resolving health struggles – mental, emotional, physical or academic – keeping an eye on sugar is important.
In this post, I’ll outline for you three ways sugar interferes with your child’s health and offer some strategies to help you scale it back to reasonable, appropriate limits without feeling like you’re depriving them.
Here are three specific ways sugar interferes with resilient health…
Sugar Depletes and Displaces Nutrients Our Kids Need
Our kids need a steady supply of nutrients to develop strong mental/emotional health, as well as strong physical health. So, anything that interferes with their nutritional status needs to be held in check.
Sugar is one of those things.
Refined sugar brings no nutritional value to the project of raising health, and it has been shown to actually deplete levels of certain nutrients, either by increasing requirements for those nutrients, stimulating their excretion, or decreasing their absorption.
For example, the body converts glucose into energy but that process requires sufficient chromium, magnesium, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid. Refined sugar contains none of these, so a diet high in refined sugar that also lacks a steady supply of nutrients from other sources will quickly lead to a nutrient deficit.
Bottom Line: too much refined sugar in the diet can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
Insufficient nutrient status has been linked to all sorts of symptoms including erratic moods, anxiety, cognitive struggles, skin issues, sleep issues, along with chronic diseases like autoimmune conditions and mental illness.
Another way to think about it is that if your child is struggling at the moment, they need premium fuel and lots of it; sugar does not give them that and can actually increase their nutrient need.
Sugar Feeds Pathogenic Microbes in the Gut
If you have ever made bread or kombucha you’ve seen what happens when you mix yeast with sugar and warmth; lots of bubbling activity!
Sugar feeds yeast and bacteria in our digestive tracts and, it turns out, keeping that ecosystem balanced is exceedingly important to just about every aspect of our health.
Microbes influence our weight, our digestion and absorption of nutrients, our inflammation, our immune system, even our gene expression. Supporting digestive health is something all parents should learn to do if they want resilient health for their kids.
But does this mean all sugar is bad? No. It’s more complicated than that.
Sugar feeds all our microbes – the ones we want to support and the ones we want to keep in check. We don’t want to starve them all, we want to balance the ecosystem.
This is where it gets complicated.
More and more kids are showing signs of microbial imbalance (called dysbiosis). Sometimes they inherited this from their mother during birth, sometimes it was induced by things like second-hand smoke, stress hormones, chlorinated water, soft drinks, heavy metal exposure, certain medications like antibiotics, Tylenol, or Naproxen.
But this much we know: imbalances in the microbiome and a lack of microbial diversity contribute to a variety of health conditions including autoimmune diseases, eczema, allergies, and a variety of mental illnesses like bipolar, anxiety disorder, and Schizophrenia. Dysbiosis has also been associated with ADHD and autism spectrum disorders.
Every time your child eats white refined sugar, they open up a window of opportunity for widening the microbial imbalance, especially if they’re already behind the 8 ball because they are on medication, are exposed to stress and chemicals, and are eating a diet low in fresh, whole, colorful foods.
Bottom line: The healthier your child’s microbiome is and the healthier their diet is as a whole, the more likely they will be able to tolerate some refined sugar without too much damage to the gut microbiome. But if your child is struggling – mentally, emotionally, physically, or academically – it’s worth keeping a tight reign on sugar of all kinds, especially during the acute phase of digestive rebalancing, because of its potential to exacerbate dysbiosis.
Sugar Contributes to ‘Hanger’, Cravings and Overeating
The level of glucose in the blood needs to stay within a narrow margin. Maintaining that margin is an intensely hormonal process involving the liver, brain, pancreas and adrenal glands.
Here’s how it works:
- When the body detects an influx of sugar in the blood (let’s say, when the entire bag of Halloween candy is devoured) it quickly sets to work to shuttle that sugar out of the blood and into cells. Insulin and chromium are key players in that shuttling process.
- If there is too much sugar for the cells to handle, plan B goes into effect and the sugar gets stored as glycogen in the liver. There it waits until it is needed.
- Should the level of sugar in the blood drop too low, the body sets to work to bring that level back up. Stored glycogen is used first (released from the liver with the help of adrenaline), and then, if needed, the brain instructs us to reach for more sugar.
It’s amazing that our bodies know exactly what to do to keep us safe! But can you see how our eating habits, particularly around sugar, can put stress on this feedback loop and cause a whole bunch of potential symptoms?
Headaches, sugar cravings, weight gain, hyperactivity (mostly from the circulating adrenaline), fatigue, irritability, and aggression are all symptoms that I have seen dissipate when we implement a diet that is more friendly to the blood sugar loop.
I’ve also seen blood sugar stability be the key to clearing up acne, stabilizing moods and even unlock the mystery of picky eating behavior (more on that on my blog)! Why? Because when we eat for better blood sugar stability we also support the general stability of our hormones.
An important first step to supporting our blood sugar stability is to reduce refined sugar.
There are other ways excessive sugar intake negatively affects health and resilience, but the bottom line is this: to build resilient health in our kids we need to reduce stress and flood their bodies with the building blocks they need to function well. Sugar, especially when eaten in excess and in the absence of a healthy diet and lifestyle, does the opposite; it adds extra stress and brings nothing to the party. The more your child is struggling with health and behavior, the less wiggle room you have in this equation.
Strategies to Reduce Sugar (Without Feeling Like You’re Depriving Your Child)
Use Healthier Sweeteners
Whole sweeteners are still sugar, so be cautious, but at least they have not been stripped of their minerals, polyphenols, and antioxidants.
Some whole sweeteners, like palm sugar, even contain a little fiber. Monk Fruit and Stevia are two sweeteners that do not seem to have a negative effect on blood sugar or gut bacteria, so experiment with those too.
Note: beware of sugar alcohols. They have a low insulin response, but there are other potential risks.
Sweeten With Fruit
Use sweet fruit like raisins, bananas, dates, and figs as sweeteners. Again, be aware that these still provide a sugar load, so use them moderately, but they’re better than white refined sugar because they carry with them valuable nutrients and fiber.
Here’s the caution when it comes to these high sugar fruits: the dominant sugar in fruit is fructose. Fructose is a simple sugar (like glucose) that has a particularly strong effect on cravings because it has been shown to reduce cellular energy production, prompting hunger. It also strains the liver, whose job it is to metabolize it, and, when we have too much of it, it gets converted into fat.
So in some cases, it’s helpful to moderate higher sugar fruits like these for a little while, but it’s generally not necessary to keep them completely out of your child’s diet long term.
Katie shares some similar ideas specifically about how to cut down on sweeteners in homemade yogurt.
Feed a Nutrient-Rich Diet
Ensure the rest of the diet is nutrient-rich. We talked about how sugar can lead to nutrient deficit and dysbiosis, so balancing your child’s sugar intake with healthy, whole foods containing antioxidants, fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals, is a way to mitigate this potential damage.
If you’re struggling to reduce the sugar, or if your child is a picky eater, be sure to have them on a good multivitamin while you break that addiction.
Consume Probiotic Foods
Include low-sugar probiotic-rich foods in your child’s diet to fortify their levels of gut bacteria and enzymes and support the immune system. Not sure how to introduce these power foods to your kids?
Ensure Proper Magnesium Intake
Include ample magnesium-rich foods in the diet like avocado, nuts, and seeds. Magnesium is one of the minerals the body uses up as sugar is metabolized. If your child is addicted to sugar, consider extra magnesium as a supplement while you transition the diet.
Eliminate Fruit Juice
Reduce (or better yet, eliminate) fruit juice – even the kind that is all-natural with no-sugar-added. Fruit juice is a major source of added sugar, particularly fructose. Look at the nutrition labels on any fruit juice and you’ll be stunned! Sounds drab, but the best drink for a child is pure water (they’ll get used to it!).
Also, try brewing herbal and berry-based teas – sweeten with liquid stevia, add a little lemon and keep it available in the fridge.
Raise Resilient Kids With Nourishing Food
If sugar keeps sneaking back into your child’s life despite your best efforts at reducing it, you’re not unlike many of the parents I work with. In order to make any diet change in your family, you need to understand why you’re doing it and you need to feel good about it. So take a breath and get strategic, ok?
It’s not your fault your child loves sugar. Sugar provides a taste that we love, it is our body’s most basic ingredient for the production of energy, it’s highly addictive, and it makes us feel good (for a while, anyhow… hence the addiction).
You and I and every parent I’ve ever talked with want more resilient health for our kids. We want kids who rebound from sickness efficiently, kids who can deal with life’s expectations, who can keep their anxiety in check. We want kids who can transition without a tantrum, feed good about themselves, succeed and fail with grace.
But sadly that’s not the profile of the average kid anymore. Too many of us are dealing with highly anxious, temperamental, aggressive, inattentive and tired kids who get sick a lot, and we need better support.
Food can help you raise healthy, resilient kids if you learn how to use it. A place you can start is by paying attention to added sugar and replacing it with more nourishing options.
Got a sugar addict on your hands?
You will be so much more successful at kicking sugar to the curb if you forget about will power and restriction and refocus on altering biochemistry. More on kicking sugar addiction here. Jess did a fabulous interview for the Healthy Parenting Connector as well – show notes on reducing stress in kids here!
- Information about added sugars
- Do diet and nutrition affect ADHD?
- Kaplan BJ, Rucklidge JJ, McLeod K, & Romijn A (2015). “The Emerging Field of Nutritional Mental Health: Inflammation, the Microbiome, Oxidative Stress, and Mitochondrial Function.” Clinical Psychological Science, 3(6), 964-980. DOI: 10.1177/2167702614555413
- Simmons M (2003). “Nutritional approach to bipolar disorder.” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (letter), 64(3), 338.
- Rucklidge JJ, Eggleston MJ, Darling KA, Stevens AJ, Kennedy MA, & Frampton CM (2019). “Can we predict treatment response in children with ADHD to a vitamin-mineral supplement? An investigation into pre-treatment nutrient serum levels, MTHFR status, clinical correlates and demographic variables.” Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 89, 181-192.
- The Role OF Nutritetns In Child Brain Development
- Fructose induces the inflammatory molecule ICAM-1 in endothelial cells
- The Effects of Sugar on Cancer
Jess is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist™ and Family Health Expert, specializing in brain health & resilience for kids.
Her path shifted when she took a sabbatical from her high school teaching career to study nutrition. In 2007 she graduated top of her class as a Registered Holistic Nutritionist™ from the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition and since then has worked alongside Naturopathic, Chiropractic and Medical Doctors, Family Counsellors, Occupational Therapists, teachers and parents to help kids calm down, learn better, have better sleep, have better poops, enjoy more stable moods and get over their picky eating.
Jess has been featured as a nutrition expert on various online summits dealing with children’s’ health, she has been a nutrition expert for on-line courses and communities, and is a regular contributor to various blogs and print magazines including Ecoparent Magazine, Medium.com, and The Whole Family.
In 2019 Jess was honored with the Award For Clinical Excellence by The Canadian School of Natural Nutrition Alumni Association for her work with families.
As a parent and advocate for children’s health Jess is working to bring an understanding of the power of good nutrition into the mainstream conversation about children’s mental health and learning. Her book, Raising Resilience: Take the stress out of feeding your family and love your life, her virtual community The Raising Resilience Community, and her online resources have helped families all over the world fit the food and feeding piece into their health puzzles and guide them towards safe, natural and effective tools to improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, autism and mood disorders.
Jess is board certified in practical holistic nutrition by the Canadian Association of Holistic Nutrition Professionals (CAHN-pro) where she serves on the board of directors working to advance the holistic nutrition profession. She is an associate member of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research, a Certified GAPS practitioner and an ambassador for the MINDD Foundation.
You can find her at www.jesssherman.com
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