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Kids and sugar- what is the deal?

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

Every parent these days has a fair idea that sugar is known as the bad guy in the health world, and that they should try and avoid too much making it into their child’s diet, but what’s the big deal? And how can we change it?

These are both great questions that all parents deserve unreservedly truthful answers to. There is so much confusion about sugar, and we owe this largely to the consistent misinformation fed to us by food companies. As parents we try to give our children the best start to life, and this includes keeping them healthy. But what I see on a daily basis is parents making what they (rightly) perceive to be healthy choices for their children, based on the information that is right in front of them- packaging and advertising that leads them completely astray. Products that claim to be “the healthy alternative” “less sugar”, “made from natural ingredients” or free from artificial colours or flavours seem to be the right decision. But what if all parents knew how freely advertisers are able to use clever terms to trick and coerce consumers into buying products that are actually sugar laden and terrible for their children’s long term health? It would change the game.

The thing is, the odd lolly or iceblock should be able to be enjoyed, without guilt, because we know they are not beneficial, and just a sometimes food. But this only works in a diet that is not otherwise high in refined sugars. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case.

Sugar isn’t just found in LCMs and fruit roll ups, its hidden away in the tomato sauce or salsa and taco seasoning we have at dinner time, or the yoghurts we paid extra for as they claimed to contain probiotics. It’s in the muesli bars, the ham and cheese scrolls, the fruit juice, the custards, and the jatz crackers. So although a parent may really mindfully allow a bowl of icecream after dinner as they feel comfortable with that small amount of sugar, it’s very likely far from the only sugar their child ate that day. And if this sounds like you, please skip right past feeling guilty- you were tricked.

So now we know how sugar can sneak into a diet, but what are the actual potential effects?

The scientific answer is that it alters your child’s brain chemistry. We need our brains to make nuero-transmitters like Dopamine every day to feel good. When we consume sugar, we release Dopamine, which can in turn lead to us becoming reliant on the sugar hit to make us feel right. Narcotics can do the same, which is why sugar is often likened to a drug. On top of our brains becoming hooked, our guts do too. Too much sugar can cause the gut’s microbiome to become out of whack- I tell kids the sugar feeds the bad guys in your tummy so the more you eat the more bad guys you grow, and the more they send messages to your brain to tell you to feed them more. Sounds like the Cookie Monster right?

Sugar also causes inflammation right through the body, and we now suspect inflammation to be the route of many diseases, from tooth and gum, arthritis, autoimmune conditions and heart disease.

It can also cause brain fog, the last thing your child needs in class, and many recent studies have found sugar consumption to contribute to depression and anxiety. The simple way I see sugar impact children however, is the constant spikes and dips. A lot of anxiety episodes or angry outbursts are purely a result of a spectacular sugar dip. Keeping kids on an even keel with good fats, protein and complex carbohydrates can make all the difference.

This is not always as hard as it may seem. The key is small changes weekly. Think how you would feel if someone took away your morning coffee without warning, and told you that you would just need to move on without it? Not good. That’s why little changes here and there are far more effective than a big overhaul where we bin the pizza shapes and all our children have grown to love, never to be seen again.

The next key is positive swaps. Sit your child down and look on the net for yummy healthy recipes they like the look of, and that you feel you’d actually manage to make, or go to the health food aisle and let them choose new snacks to try. Learn to be a sugar detective- read the ingredients, don’t just trust the front cover claims. A sugary fruit yoghurt can swap for a lower sugar vanilla yoghurt, where the sugar content comes from the lactose in the milk not added sweetener. An LCM could turn into a homemade raw slice or some bliss balls, and what child doesn’t enjoy a simple cheese stick?

It may take time to reduce the sugar in your family’s diet, but it is doable and so worth it.

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