Effect of Sugar on Behavior

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 behavior, particularly 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. Numerous researchers 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.

Here are some of the facts:

* Sugar is high in calories and has little nutritional value like vitamins, minerals, protein or fiber. Sugar is typically added to foods during processing, preparation or at the table. Typical “junk foods” that are high in sugar include soda, cookies, cake, candy, and frozen desserts. However, many brands of children’s favorite foods — such as yogurt, cereal, and fruit juice — also contain large amounts of added sugar.

* Naturally occurring (intrinsic) sugars are “good” sugars that are an integral part of whole fruit, vegetable, and milk products (such as fructose found in fruit and lactose found in milk).

* Added (extrinsic) sugars are “bad” sugars and syrups that are added to foods during processing or preparation and include sugars and syrups added at the table.

* Studies show that children are consuming too much sugar. The American Heart Association (AHA) found children as young as 1 to 3 years old consuming around 12 teaspoons of sugar per day. By the time a child is 4 to 8 years old, sugar consumption jumps to an average of 21 teaspoons a day. These amounts are way above the recommended intake of sugar. Diets high in sugar have also been linked to other health issues in children including tooth decay and obesity.


In 2009, the AHA released new recommendations for children’s consumption of sugar:

* Toddlers and preschoolers with a daily caloric intake of 1,200 to 1,400 calories should not consume more than 170 calories, or about 4 teaspoons (around 17 grams) of added sugar a day.

* Children ages 4 to 8 with a daily caloric intake of 1,600 calories should consume no more than 130 calories, or about 3 teaspoons (around 12 and a half grams) of added sugar a day. (One teaspoon of sugar is equal to about 4.2 grams.)

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