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Does sugar worsen a child's behavior?

food choices & feeding mood learning & behaviour

Whether sugar worsens a child's behavior is an interesting question I get asked a lot. My answer is that sugar is almost always a contributor, even if you don't see a marked change immediately after they eat it. Here's why...

Sugar Worsens A Child's Behavior & Mood

Have you ever felt hanger before? You know, it's 2pm and you realize all you've had to eat is a cup of coffee and a bagel and you're starting to get shaky, tired, depressed, crave sugar and snap at your kids?

That's your nervous system reacting to a dip in blood sugar (probably). That's hanger.

You not only feel terrible, but you're putting your body under a great deal of stress as it scrambles to cope.

As they follow The Resilience Roadmap methodology (the one we use here), the second thing I have parents explore is what might be adding irritation, inflammation and additional stress to their child's body. The more we can get that down, the better their kids can function.

Sugar is one of those things that causes stress and irritation - for a few reasons, but the one I want to explain here is because its effect on Blood Sugar stability.

Blood Sugar Matters

Our bodies are equipped with remarkable feedback loops to keep the amount of sugar in our blood stream within the right range. If it gets too high, the pancreas is told to release insulin which shuttles that sugar out of the blood; if it dips too low, the adrenal glands are told to release cortisol to bring it back up.

Pretty cool. And very dependent on properly functioning organs, hormones and signals. 

When we feed a child a diet full of sugar, we add stress and increase workload. If resilience is strong they can manage just fine for a while. But when it's low (ie they struggle to self regulate and manage stress) they can become extremely sensitive to sugar swings.

(Related post (video): What Raising Resilience Is All About)

Here's What Happens When We Reduce Sugar

When we get a child on a diet higher in healthy fats, protein and fibre and lower in carbohydrates and sugar, we reduce the stress on their blood sugar feedback loop. Basically, we ease their body’s work load, and that’s a big deal for a child who's struggling to cope.

Here's what I see most often...

  • Energy becomes steadier (less extreme highs and lows throughout the day),
  • Tempers even out (they become more tolerant to change and the unexpected),
  • I almost always see sleep improve (easier to get them to sleep and they stay asleep - which itself yields a happier, healthier, more focused kid the next day),
  • They eat less during the day (kids who are constantly scrounging in the kitchen start to be able to make it to meals without snacks)
  • They stop sneaking sugar and craving white foods

How Do You Know If Sugar Is An Issue For Your Child?

Here are some signs that your child might be struggling with blood sugar instability:

  • They're a terrible sleeper (can't settle, wake during the night);
  • They have erratic hunger patterns (are often hungry all the time or not hungry at all);
  • They often get tired and want to lie down after eating;
  • They have weight issues (can't gain or lose);
  • They are often very grumpy in the afternoon;
  • They struggle to focus and think clearly;
  • They feel irritated and combative, especially around food;
  • They have bad hormonal acne
  • They steel or crave sugar and throw a fit when they're called out

How To Start Getting A Handle On Sugar Swings

We all know sugar is bad for us, and cutting it back is your first step to better blood sugar control. But also remember sugar is addictive, so if you're struggling to cut it back it's probably not your fault!

Some ways to start... 

  • Dilute fruit juice or cut it out completely
  • Start to read food labels with an eye on sugar content
  • Swap out your sweeteners (grab our SuperNourished Family swap guide down at the bottom of this post)

(Related Post: Top Tips To Cut Sugar Cravings)

Two Secret Strategies

I want to let you in on two less-talked about pieces of the sugar issue. This will be particularly helpful if you feel like you've tried everything and cutting your sugar-addicted child’s sugar throws your family into a tailspin.

1) Better Nourishment. Nutrients like magnesium, chromium and fibre are involved in sugar metabolism. When we increase these, kids can often tolerate sugar a bit better. So once again, this is why families following the Resilience Roadmap, start with nourishment. We ask, what can we add in before we start taking things out? 

2) Stress Reduction. Cortisol is a hormone that raises blood sugar by activating the release of stored glucose. The adrenal glands will release cortisol any time the body perceives itself to be under stress. Constant stress means constant instability in the blood sugar management loop. So managing all types of stress is a key factor for better sugar tolerance. Some things to explore are: identifying food sensitivities, avoiding chemicals, identifying pathogens and infections in the gut, simplifying schedules, and finding time to rest and connect.

Bottom Line

Sugar causes stress and poor sugar tolerance is a symptom of stress. When your child is already struggling to cope with and respond to stress in their day-to-day, cutting sugar back while improving the body's resilience helps stabilize their mood and behavior.

It's well worth your time and energy to reduce your child's sugar.

(Related post (video): Do Gluten & Sugar Impact A Child's Behavior?) 

About Jess Sherman, FDN-P, M.Ed, R.H.N

Jess is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition® Practitioner, Registered Holistic Nutritionist™ and Family Health Educator specializing in brain health & resilience for kids. She is the author of Raising Resilience: Take the stress out of feeding your family & love your life, and the creator of The Resilience Roadmap™ - a systematic process to help parents help their kids feel and function better. Her book and online resources have helped families in 44 countries improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, autism and mood disorders by helping them find hidden stressors and fit the food and feeding piece into their health puzzles. She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work helping families get healthier, and she continues to bring an understanding of the power of good nutrition to the mainstream conversation about children’s mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses and as a  contributor to print and online magazines. You can reach Jess at www.jesssherman.com 

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The content on this website and in the guides and courses offered here is meant to provide information so that parents can make informed decisions and discuss these issue with their health care teams. It is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or individualized care.