Friday, October 1, 2010

The Sugar Myth

While shopping at Costco recently, I came across a mom pushing two curly haired boys, maybe 5 and 3 years old, sitting in a cart. The mom handed each child a free sample of three or four chocolate covered raisins. Both boys were happy to pop one of the treats into their mouths. 
Within seconds, the older boy elbowed the younger and screeched a sound of intolerance. The younger child growled back. A two second scuffle for cart seating supremacy ensued.
“You see,” the mom said with despair. “I give you two sugar and you get all hyper!”
The boys shoved their remaining chocolate covered raisins into their mouths as their mother wrestled the empty sample cups away from them. She was not happy.
The sugar in neither the chocolate nor the raisins hadn’t had a chance to be absorbed by the boys’ digestive systems. But, I doubt that the mother was talking about that specifically. What I guess mom was talking about was her belief that sugar influences behavior. This is a common belief of the parents I talk to. Let’s question this belief.

Is sugar a drug?
The simple answer is no. Please allow me to explain. By definition a drug is a chemical substance that affects the central nervous system causing changes in behavior and often addiction. The role of sugar and behavior has been studied a lot over the past 30 years. There is no scientific research that shows sugar to be a drug. No scientific evidence that the chemical compound of sugar effects the central nervous system. 
So why does this belief persist?
It is common for situations in our lives to influence what happens next. If you sniff pepper and then sneeze it is a fair assumption that the pepper irritated the lining of your nose and caused you to sneeze. This may be why sugar has such a bad rep. If you have a bunch of kids at a birthday party running around and “acting hyper” the assumptions is the birthday cake and ice cream “high” caused the burst of energy. This idea has been put to the test. 
A classroom of children were given a party and stuffed with lots of cake and ice cream then their parents were asked to rate their hyperactivity. The bouncing children were rated as very hyper by their parents. The parents were then told that the high energy party was totally sugar free. The parents were surprised. In another classroom, the parents were told that the kids were having a party, but all the cake and ice cream was sugar free. The parents rated the children’s behavior as normal. When the tricky experimenters told the parents that the cake and ice cream was really sugar full and not sugar free the parents were surprised. 
Research consistently shows that children are “hyper” when doing stimulating activities like birthday parties or family special events. Often sugar is readily available at these types of special events. But, it is the excitement of the event, not the food at the event, that caused the “hyper” and happy behavior.
Expectations count
Our expectations of our child’s behavior influences how we perceive their behavior.
 So! What’s the big deal about blaming sugar?
I’m glad you asked. The big deal is by telling children that when they eat sugar they are out of control, we accidentally tell them that they are not responsible for controlling their own behaviors. It is important that children learn that they are in control of their own brains, and that sugar, their brother’s mean look, or the close quarters of the shopping cart, does not give them permission to growl or hit their brother. The fact is, they gave themselves permission to growl or hit. So the real question to be discussing with our children is, “Why did you give yourself permission to growl or hit your brother?”
Alas there are problems with sugar
Recent research shows that large intakes of sugar (often soda) and childhood obesity lead to diabetes in early adulthood. This is life changing and very dangerous. Limiting sugars from all sources, especially foods without nutrients, in the diet during childhood is a good idea. 
And let’s not forget cavities. Sugar in the diet feeds the bacteria in the mouth. Bacteria, like all living things, get rid of waste products. This bacterial waste product is what causes tooth decay. So, let’s remind our youngsters to brush the bacterial poop off their teeth and gums twice a day.
Just in case you were curious, the free sample of chocolate covered raisins was delicious.

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