With the silly season upon us, our kids are often bombarded with sweet treats, lollies and more party food than they’d normally have. Apart from being bad for your child overall and encouraging a sweet tooth, can too much sugar also result in a temporary sugar high frenzy? Here are some ways you can limit the damage.
Is the existence of a sugar high fact or fiction? Many parents are adamant of its existence: one minute, their innocent darling is a well-tempered model of perfection, and the next, after a high dose of sugar, they are a whirlwind of chaos and mayhem.
There has long been a theory that an overindulgence of sugar leads to hyperactivity in children, an actual physiological response which changes their behaviour. This could potentially be sparked by the release of feel-good hormones in the brain or a jolt of energy in the body, as sugar is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. This opinion was born during the 70s, where research showed that removing sugar from the diet led to a positive shift in child behaviour and reintroducing it led to bad behaviour in children. But if you’re a little sceptical of this theory, you’re not alone. More recent research has raised questions about the validity of the studies, declaring them as poorly conducted and flawed; and has shown there’s no actual link between dietary sugar and hyperactivity.
A possible explanation for the popularity of this myth between parents is our perceptions and expectations. One specific study gave two groups of children a sweetened drink with no sugar in it, but told the parents of one group their children had been given sugar. This group perceived their children’s resulting behaviour to be more hyperactive. Other reasons can be linked to the semblance of a sugar high, for example, the excitement of the idea of having a treat or being at a party with other kids, the enjoyment of being with friends and the chance to run and play may be perceived as a high from party foods. There has been a wealth of research in the last two decades concluding sugar is not our enemy in the commonly-termed sugar high.
Whatever you believe about sugar and its effects on behaviour, we can all agree that excess sugar is not good for children. Sugar can harm their teeth, affect blood levels, impair general health and, while sugar and other carbohydrates are extremely important in a child’s diet to fuel their daily activities and body function, having sugary foods can replace more important parts of the diet.
The carbohydrates our kids need are low GI or complex like the ones found in whole grains. The word we need to look for on food labels is whole: whole grain bread, cereals, crackers or cookies, wholemeal or whole wheat pasta, ravioli or couscous, grains, legumes, high contents of fruit and fibre content labelled as more than 3%.
We know that children love sugar, as they naturally prefer sweet flavours. However, we have the power to introduce the concept of moderation. Christmas is approaching rapidly and with it, sugary, processed foods such as lollies, chocolates, soft drinks, ice blocks, Christmas puddings and desserts, to mention only a few. These foods should be given in controlled portions; it’s not a matter of removing them completely from the menu – sometimes they can be literally unavoidable – but more about providing our kids with the right type of carbohydrates and training their taste buds to not expect too much sweetness in their food. Is this even possible? In the course of our job as Nutrionists, we have met children who are used to low sugar density foods at home, and they will be easily satisfied (if not saturated) with less sweets compared to those children who are used to sugary foods. Our kids just need to be reminded when they have already had their ‘sugar dose’ for the day.
We wish you a healthy Christmas full of variety and moderation and a wonderful new year with plenty of positive resolutions for your children’s health and wellbeing. (Remember to leave wholegrain biscuits and low-fat milk for Santa.)
tips to keep healthy at christmas
- Fruit comes first and before any other food at breakfast, lunch or dinner times. Children should get used to having fruit as an appetiser as, for many children, it is almost never their first choice, and leaving it until the end of the meal may mean not eating it at all. This simple rule will help to take care of their 5+ a day.
- Christmas time is also summer time. Take advantage of the abundance of fresh fruit and make home-made juices and smoothies. Fresh juice is delicious, cheap, healthy and 100% natural, all you need is a blender or food processor.
- Include the following ingredients in your Christmas desserts: wholemeal flour; nuts; dried, fresh or canned fruits; margarine or olive oil (instead of butter); seeds; and yoghurt. Baking and cooking can reduce the nutrient value of foods; however fibre, minerals and some vitamins can survive these processes.
- Try low GI sugar (unrefined sugars such as agave and honey, for example) for baking and general use. It is probably a healthier alternative to conventional sugar as it seems to retain its characteristics, with the advantage of a slower and more sustained release into the bloodstream. Caution: this does not mean that children can have more of it, but it might help them have energy for longer.
This fruit loaf is naturally sweet and only needs the addition of a small amount of sugar and honey. For children under the age of one, substitute the honey with sugar or omit altogether. Using rye flour has the added benefit of providing some extra fibre into your children’s diet. Serve this loaf warm or cold with a glass of milk as a nutritious and healthy snack.
- 125g unsalted butter
- 55g icing sugar
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 3 eggs
- 125g white flour
- 70g rye flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 55ml milk
- 40g red glacé cherries
- 40g green glacé cherries
- 55g sultanas
Preheat oven to 160ºC (325ºF). Grease a 23 × 12cm
(9 × 5 inch) loaf tin. Melt the butter and mix in the icing sugar and honey. Beat in the eggs and mix until well combined. Fold in the white flour, rye flour and baking powder. Add the milk and mix well. Mix in the glacé cherries and sultanas. Pour this batter into the prepared tin and fan bake for 35 minutes or until a fine skewer or toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Slice up and serve warm or cold.
By Christelle Le Ru
Cookbook author & mum of five
Project Nutrition is an organisation that aims to promote health and wellbeing through good nutritional advice that is accessible and affordable for everyone. www.projectnutrition.co.nz