Refined Sugars and Flours

Parents and educators often contend that sugar and other carbohydrate ingestion can dramatically impact children’s behavior, activity and attention.

Food processing can have other negative effects on kids’ brains. In the 1800s the average American consumed 12 pounds of sugar per year. Due to the overwhelming success of the refined-food industry, however, by 1975 sugar consumption had jumped 1000% to 118 pounds per capita, and continued increasing to an average of 152.4 pounds for every man, woman, and child by 2000 (

Where are all these sugars coming from? It’s not just cookies, candies, and other sweet treats! Sugars – and more recently, high fructose corn syrup14 show up on an astonishing variety of food labels , and high on the list of ingredients in the sweetened beverages that kids guzzle. They are ubiquitous in many convenience foods and fast foods , and you will find them in much of the processed food served in school lunches.

The effect of sugar intake is a hotly debated topic in pediatrics. Parents and educators often contend that sugar and other carbohydrate ingestion can dramatically impact children’s behavior, activity and attention. However, physicians looking at controlled studies of sugar intake do not find hypoglycemia or other blood sugar abnormalities in the children who are consuming large amounts of sugar.

The Journal of Pediatrics15 reported that there is a more pronounced response to a glucose load in children than in adults. In children, hypoglycemia-like symptoms (including shakiness, sweating, and altered thinking and behavior) may occur at a blood sugar level that would not be considered hypoglycemic. 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.

Serving a breakfast with complex carbohydrates (like oatmeal, shredded wheat, berries, bananas, or whole-grain pancakes) and packing a lunch with delicious fiber-containing treats (such as whole-grain breads and fresh fruit) will help keep your child’s adrenaline levels more constant, which may increase their ability to pay attention in school.


When foods are cooked, their nutrient profile changes. For instance, overcooking can destroy beta-carotene, an important antioxidant. Overcooked carrots have significantly lower antioxidants overall than do raw or gently cooked carrots. The same is true for broccoli and asparagus. Baked or boiled russet potatoes have higher nutrient levels than do raw potatoes-but frying the potatoes destroys important nutrients. Peeling some foods (such as apples, potatoes, or cucumbers) can also decrease antioxidant power16.

Read More From This Series:
Part 1 – Brain Food For Your Kids: How Do You Score?
Part 2 – From Backyard Gardens to Kindergartens
Part 3 – Brain Building
Part 4 – How is your food grown?
Part 5 – Antioxidants – Extra Credit
Part 6 – How Our Food Is Processed
Part 7 – Refined Sugars and Flours
Part 8 – School Fuel: Homework for Parents
Part 9 – How Much Does a Child Need Each Day?

14 Ivaturi R, Kies C. 1992. Mineral balances in humans as affected by fructose, high fructose corn syrup and sucrose. Plant Foods Hum Nutr 42:143–151.
15 Jones TW, Borg, WP, Boulware SD, McCarthy G, Sherwin RS, Tamborlane WV. 1995. Enhanced adrenomedullary response and increased susceptibility to neuroglycopenia: mechanisms underlying the adverse effects of sugar ingestion in healthy children. Journal of Pediatrics. 126(2):171-7.
16 Wu X, Beecher GR, Holden JM, Haytowitz DB, Gebhardt SE, Prior RL. 2004. Lipophilic and hydrophilic antioxidant capacities of common foods in the United States. J Agric Food Chem. 52(12):4026-37.
Last medical review on: December 18, 2011
About the Author
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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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