Sugar Highs and Lows

by Stacey

Even if you’re not a parent, you know that sugar makes kids hyper. Right? Well, maybe not. According to this article in the LA Times, it’s a matter of debate among nutrition researchers.

Experts disagree about whether the sugar high and sugar crash truly exist. Many say the evidence contradicts such stories. “There is no scientific basis to the idea that sugar and/or candy has any major effect on children’s behavior, particularly if they eat OK,” says Dian Dooley, professor of human nutrition, food and animal sciences at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Others think sugar has plenty of skeletons in its closet. “The bottom line is that the ingestion of too much high-glycemic carbohydrate causes a rapid rise and then fall of blood sugar,” says Dr. David Ludwig, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Optimal Weight for Life program at Children’s Hospital Boston. “This triggers a series of metabolic and hormonal changes that can affect appetite and behavior for hours to come.”

No one doubts that sugar, which turns into glucose in the body, is one of our two main sources of energy (along with fat). So it seems to make sense that if your child eats 30 pieces of candy on Halloween night, he’s going to be bouncing off the walls. (And right on into the bathroom.)

But sugar in the body isn’t exactly like gasoline in a car, the more you give it the faster it goes. The body has a system to regulate glucose such that blood sugar levels remain stable. This all works through the pancreas, which releases insulin when sugar levels are high and the hormone glucagon when sugar levels dip too low. It’s a finely tuned system that doesn’t always work right. Diabetics don’t produce enough insulin, for example. And even in a healthy person, it can take a little time to restore the system to balance once it’s gotten off kilter, the article says.

In the meantime, does excess sugar produce excess energy? There’s a bunch of studies described in the article, all of which seem to contradict each other. One showed there was no difference in behavior among preschooler and elementary kids who ate sugar or aspartame (an artificial sweetner) and another showed that sugar had no effect on the behavior of normal children or children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. But then another study of 5,000 Norwegian teenagers found a link between hyperactivity and drinking sugary soda. Another small study of the effects of sugar on adults found that it had a hypoactive effect, that is it made people tired and sluggish.

Researchers from Harvard may be the ones to shed some light on this controversy. According to the article, Harvard’s Ludwig says that many studies testing for a sugar-behavior link didn’t find one because they compared sugar with other refined starches whose effects on the body are the same because they are broken down into sugar very quickly.”Your glucose level can rise as much after a bowl of plain Rice Krispies as after a bowl of sugar,” he says.

With co-workers, he corrected for this problem in a 1999 study of 12 obese, but otherwise healthy, teenage boys that was published in the journal Pediatrics. The boys were evaluated on three occasions: when their breakfast and lunch had a low, medium or high glycemic index — a ranking of carbohydrates according to how quickly they cause blood glucose levels to rise. All the meals for each subject had the same number of calories.

The high-index meal led to lower levels of glucagon and higher levels of insulin and epinephrine — a stress hormone that, among other things, increases heart rate and blood pressure. “The results show that sugar and other refined starches can trigger counter-regulatory stress hormones that can affect hunger, mental functioning and behavior,” Ludwig says.

This makes sense to me and kind of makes me think that if you give your kid enough healthy food, a reasonable amount of sugar and unrefined starches won’t have a huge effect on their behavior. What do you think? Can you tell if your child has eaten sugar? Are you dreading the highs and lows of tomorrow night?

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4 Comments

Filed under children's health, family, food, kids, nutrition, parenting

4 responses to “Sugar Highs and Lows

  1. yernemesis

    I thought this was a fascinating article. Sugar causes a physiological low, not a high! Imagine how wound up they’d be after a pinata if it caused a high; they’d positively explode.

    And, of course, the report that the parent’s whose kids were given sugar-free candy reported as much sugar highs as those parents of kids given regular candy. So, it may be an illusion of expectations.

    I’ve always found hard candy soothing. My mom gave me lifesavers of lemon drops at churches, or weddings, or concerts when I had to be quiet.

  2. awww, that’s sweet (no pun intended). i like the idea of your mom giving you lemon drops to keep you quiet. we use lollipops on long car rides to keep Sage occupied.

  3. dagmire

    lollipops are simply amazing.
    i have to say i have turned a corner regarding my view of them – from avoiding to embracing (when the time is right)
    i have several i have set aside for a plane ride next week. the secret, albeit sticky, weapon.

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