Sugar & Children’s Diet


Can you give me some information on sugar and diet? Does sugar really affect a child’s energy level and mood?

Dr. Greene's Answer

Children do not need to eat large amounts of sugar. In the 1800s, the average American consumed 12 pounds of sugar per year. By 1975, however, after the overwhelming success of the refined-food industry, the 12 pounds had jumped to a world-leading 118 pounds per year, and jumped again to 137.5 pounds per capita (for every man, woman, and child) by 1990. (Food Consumption, Prices and Expenditures, United States Department of Agriculture, 1991).

The effect of sugar intake on children’s behavior is a hotly debated topic in pediatrics. Parents and educators often contend that sugar and other carbohydrate ingestion can dramatically impact children’s behavior, particularly their activity levels. Physicians, on the other hand, have looked at controlled studies of sugar intake and have not found hypoglycemia or other blood sugar abnormalities in children who are consuming large amounts of sugar.

An interesting article appears in the February 1996 edition of the Journal of Pediatrics. In contrast with other research teams, William Tamborlane, MD, et al of Yale University, leaders in child nutrition, reported a more pronounced response to a glucose load in children than in adults.

It is commonly acknowledged that as blood glucose levels fall, a compensatory release of adrenaline occurs. When the blood glucose level falls below normal, the resulting situation is called hypoglycemia. Signs and symptoms that accompany this include shakiness, sweating, and altered thinking and behavior.

Tamborlane and his colleagues demonstrated that this adrenaline release occurs at higher glucose levels in children than it does in adults. In children, it occurs at a blood sugar level that would not be considered hypoglycemic. The peak of this adrenaline surge comes about 4 hours after eating. The authors reason that the problem is not sugar, per se, but highly refined sugars and carbohydrates, which enter the bloodstream quickly and produce more rapid fluctuations in blood glucose levels.

Giving your child a breakfast that contains fiber (such as oatmeal, shredded wheat, berries, bananas, or whole-grain pancakes) should keep adrenaline levels more constant and make the school day a more wondrous experience. Packing her or his lunch box with delicious, fiber-containing treats (such as whole-grain breads, peaches, grapes, or a myriad of other fresh fruits) may turn afternoons at home into a delight.

Refined sugars also affect insulin control, which decides how much fat they will store for the rest of their lives. As a child, I had HoHos, Twinkies, and Ding Dongs as regular parts of my meals because my mother, like so many of that era, wanted to give her children a nice treat. We both shudder now to think of it.

Sugar is not just found in sweets or junk cereal. It’s in almost everything. When you look at labels, you find sugar, sucrose, glucose, dextrose, sorbitol, or corn syrup on almost every label. The more simple meals from whole foods contain much less sugar.

Fruit juices contain lots of simple sugar without much fiber. Many people think of juices as health foods. This simply isn’t true. In small quantities they are fine, but they are mainly a way to get many of the calories and some of the nutrients from a substance, without getting as full and without getting the needed fiber. And children who drink more than 12 ounces of fruit juice per day are, on average, shorter and fatter than those who don’t.

Last medical review on: October 26, 2010
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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