Is Sugar Making Your Kids Stupid?
Sugar has been vilified in recent years. Does it deserve the reputation it’s earning as a nutrition evil? I think so. If we want to inspire a generation of healthy kids, we need to be honest with ourselves and our kids about sugar and its role in our health. Previously, I’ve discussed sugar’s addictive qualities. Another story that hit the news just two years ago is that sugar makes kids stupid. Is this true? Does sugar really make your kids dumb?
Yes it is true. Sugar really can hurt your kids’ learning and memory retention. There is more than one study explaining how this works. Keep reading and I will explain to you exactly how sugar is processed by your body and how it impacts your brain. Please be aware that the sugar I am referring to is refined, processed sugar, not naturally occurring sugars that can actually be quite healthy.
The first part of the sugar digestion process to understand is that any high sugar diet affects insulin production in the body. When too much sugar is consumed for a prolonged period of time (and by prolonged we are talking about mere weeks, not months or years!), your body becomes resistant to insulin, the hormone that controls how cells use and store sugar. It has long been known that this insulin resistance, when built up enough, turns into diabetes. But it has only recently been discovered that an inability to fully utilize insulin actually affects the brain. Insulin crosses the barrier into the brain and it is now known that insulin resistance goes hand in hand with memory loss and learning impairment.
Here’s how it works: your brain cells need sugar – double the sugar of any other cells in your body – to function. But without insulin, they can’t take in, store, or use sugar, even if it’s available. The problem is that eating too much added sugar reduces the brain’s production of a hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Lower levels of BDNF not only add to insulin resistance, which affects how cells use sugar, but it also directly affects learning and memory formation.[i]
In other words, a diet high in added sugar (that is, any sugar not naturally occurring in fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and whole grains) will make it harder for your child to learn. Maybe if they come home with poor grades it’s not really their fault. After all, according to the US Department of Agriculture, the average American eats 156 pounds of added sugar per year.[ii] That is about a quarter of a 2000 calorie per day diet – and it does not include any naturally occurring sugars, either![iii]
As if that isn’t bad enough, all this excess sugar isn’t just causing your child to act out in class or do poorly on exams – it’s affecting their behavior in other ways, too. Low BDNF levels are linked to depression and dementia – and might even be linked to diseases like Alzheimer’s.[iv] Remember, BDNF levels are lowered when excess added sugar is consumed. If your child seems unhappy, depressed, or otherwise unstable, maybe the “chemical imbalance” a psychiatrist will claim he has is really just BDNF levels that are too low. Instead of turning to medication, try cutting out all that added sugar.
We all want our children to succeed. We want them to not only be healthy, but smart, too, no matter where their particular type of intelligence takes them. Whether they are book smart, creative, technically talented, or all of the above, we want to enhance those qualities, not hinder them. We all want our kids to succeed in life and intelligence is a major part of that success in our society. If we want to give our kids the best advantages not only in terms of their own personal health and well-being, but also in terms of social and professional advancement, then we have to take these facts into account. One thing we can do to increase our kids’ chances of lifelong success is to cut sugar out of their diets.
Now that you know exactly how sugar affects the brain, whether to reduce or (even better!) eliminate sugar from your kids’ diets should be a no-brainer (pun intended!). Cutting out sugar will help improve your kids’ memory, mood, and overall health in many ways.
[i] Molteni R, Barnard RJ, et al. A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning. Neuroscience. 2002;112(4):803-14.
[ii] Wells HF, Buzby JC. Dietary Assessment of Major Trends in U.S. Food Consumption, 1970-2005. USDA Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-33) 27 pp, March 2008.
[iii] Ervin RB, Kit BK, et al. Consumption of Added Sugar Among U.S. Children and Adolescents, 2005–2008. NCHS Data Brief, Number 87, February 2012.
[iv] Krabbe KS, Nielson AR, et al. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and type 2 diabetes. Diabetologia. 2007 Feb;50(2):431-8. Epub 2006 Dec 7.