How Sugar Affects Behavior (from "Little Sugar Addicts)
How do you know if your child is sugar sensitive? "I've never known parents who didn't know," chuckles DesMaisons. "Usually the kids really, really want sweet stuff. They don't want to eat protein—they only want to eat sweets." This is particularly acute during snack times. "The most critical issue for children is when their blood sugar drops," DesMaisons points out. "If your child is being horrible and you give them something sweet, and they are immediately nice—they are sugar sensitive."
In her book Little Sugar Addicts, DesMaisons suggests looking at your child's behavior, health, and emotional state: Does your child ask for sweet foods all the time? Have unexpected meltdowns that end in tantrums or tears? Is she impulsive, wildly dramatic or goofy, restless, or known as a motor mouth? Does she have a hard time paying attention or lock in on a task and then forget to do anything else? Look at your child's health too. Does she have a lot of allergies or persistent ear infections? Is she overweight? And what is her general mood? Does she cry easily and frequently? Is she moody or does she exhibit a low self-esteem?
All of these traits may sound like normal childhood behavior—for parents of toddlers this may simply seem like everyday life! But, "the terrible twos are a myth," says DesMaisons, stating the behavior can be a direct result of diet. "Mood swings, inability to concentrate, temper tantrums, and the most significant—low self-esteem are all the affects of too much sugar in your child's diet."
Your little one's body doesn't handle or process sugar the same way as an adult. In fact, you may be surprised at just how acutely different a child's body responds to even a seemingly small amount of sugar. For example, look at one can of soda. "If you have an adult who drinks a 12-ounce can of soda (40 grams of sugar)," explains DesMaisons, "they are having one gram of sugar per four pounds of body weight. But, if you give a can of soda to a 40-pound child, the dose relationship is very different. For a child that is the equivalent of four cans or a six pack."
How Sugar Impacts Kids
What does sugar do to kids? The effects are threefold and involve three inter-dependent aspects of their brains and bodies: blood sugar, and serotonin and beta-endorphin levels.
When we eat carbohydrates, such as sugars and starches, our blood sugar rises and our bodies release insulin. Insulin then helps to fuel the body. But for children who are sugar sensitive, this careful balance of food and fuel is disrupted. Blood sugar rises more quickly and reaches higher levels than normal. As result, a greater amount of insulin is released, and sugar is absorbed more quickly into our cells. This creates that "sugar high" we've all felt. And it subsequently creates that nasty crash—defined by feelings of exhaustion, spaciness, and irritability.
An important brain chemical affected by sugar is serotonin. "Serotonin is a chemical that quiets the brain," writes DesMaisons. It is what makes us all have that feeling of well-being and peacefulness. When a child has low serotonin levels, she feels out of control, depressed, and overwhelmed. "Sugar sensitive children have lower levels of serotonin than other children," adds DesMaisons. By changing diet, these beneficial levels can be raised, creating more self-confident, in-control children with a much happier outlook on themselves and the world around them.
Beta-endorphins, another brain chemical affected by sugar, are what DesMaisons calls, "the brain's own pain killer." Children who are sugar sensitive are much more sensitive towards both physical and emotional pain. Trips to the dentist are far more traumatic, and feelings are hurt far more easily than in children who eat less sugar. But even more importantly, beta-endorphins are strongly associated with self-esteem. Children with normal beta-endorphin levels feel confident and secure. However, children who eat too much sugar, which heightens these levels, then "feel inadequate and unworthy, even if they are smart," once the sugar wears off, writes DesMaisons.
A Seven-Step Solution
Sugar and addiction are strongly linked. "While not deadly like heroin," writes DesMaisons, "sugar similarly affects beta-endorphin. It impacts the same neurochemical system as heroin, although not as intensely." And breaking that addiction can be a long and difficult process. DesMaisons understands that this is a problem faced not just in family's homes, but at school, and in the world at large. She suggests that the best way to approach finding a solution is to first focus on your family and home. Strive to make change there first, then supply your child with the tools to make healthy and smart food choices when she is out of your care.
The first true step is to take a look at your and your spouse's or partner's diet. "I've written four books, and this is the hardest book I've ever done," says DesMaisons of Little Sugar Addicts. "[This] is really about the parents and not the children."
DesMaisons suggests keeping a food journal and becoming aware of your role as nutrition model for your children. She gives the analogy of an oxygen mask on a distressed airplane: In case of an emergency, flight attendants tell us to first administer the oxygen masks to ourselves, then tend to family members or loved ones. This advice applies here as well; assess your own diet and sugar intake before you take steps to improve your child's diet.
DesMaisons lays out seven steps to fight sugar and its effects:
1.Eat breakfast with protein; and do it within the first hour of waking, suggests DesMaisons, to beat a drop in blood sugar. Quinoa and millet are high in protein.
2.Make connections between food and mood. Never reward a child with food—especially sweets.
3.Change snacks and drinks. Children under the age of 18 should eat every three hours to prevent a drop in blood sugar. In addition to good, well-balanced meals, your child should get several high-protein snacks throughout the day.
4. Eat protein lunches. Foods like cottage cheese, almond butter, fish, and nuts are all essentials.
5.Shift to whole grain food. Cut any white flour breads and pastas from your diet.
6.Take out the sugar. ("Notice that taking out sugar is not step one. It is step six," writes DesMaisons.)