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The Truth about the Impact of Sugar on Children’s Brains

Child's Hand Dipping Into a Pick and Mix Box of Sweets

Sugar is the new dietary bad guy on the block. It's the latest food bogeyman; the subject of countless awareness campaigns and warnings from public health organisations. We know eating too much added sugar can lead to serious health complications like diabetes, obesity and even cancer. We know because we're told all the time.

Despite this, children in the UK continue to eat some of the most sugar rich diets in the world. While there are positive signs our habits are changing - the sugar tax has decreased total sugar content within the British soft drinks industry by 21% - our young people are still consuming twice the recommended daily amount.

The reasons for this are complex. Many sugars are 'hidden' in products we may not consider 'unhealthy' such as condiments and bread. Plus, the overconsumption of sugar is a long term problem and the damage it causes isn't always as obvious as tooth decay. As we can't see what added sugar does to our insides, it's often difficult to see the danger in giving children just one more cake, biscuit or chocolate bar.

For this reason, we're going to take a closer look at the way added sugars affect a child's brain. Please share these facts with pupils, parents and carers as part of your Sugar Awareness Week activities.

1. Why Sugar Is a Complex Foe

The fight against sugar is made more complex by the fact we need it to survive. The brain relies on glucose for its fuel. Glucose, however, is one of the naturally occurring sugars. Whereas the sugar added to food products to make them taste sweeter is unnecessary from a dietary standpoint. It is an excess with little to no nutritional value. It tastes good, but it doesn't do anything for children's brains or bodies.

2. Self-Control and Cognitive Functions

The reason we crave nutritionally empty sugars is because the human brain rewards us for it with dopamine (the 'happy' hormone). This makes reducing our sugar consumption very difficult. For children, it's a barely understood instinct which makes them excited and drives them to more intense feelings of hunger.

The science tells us high glycaemic foods produce an addictive drive in the brain. It's why parents and educators must not only teach children how to manage dietary sugars but also take proactive steps to reduce the amount of sugar they have access to.

3. The Impact of Sugar on Memory

Countless studies say even small amounts of added sugar impairs memory, attention and behaviour regulation skills. There is evidence high sugar diets cause brain inflammation which slows cognitive functions by increasing blood pressure and damaging blood vessels. This manifests in slower response times, memory lapses and greater mental fatigue for children during lessons.

The good news is, provided dietary sugars are reduced to below 19g per day, children can expect to suffer no long term damage. Young people's brains are remarkably resilient and even many years of poor eating can be reversed with whole foods, fruits and vegetables.

4. Sugar 'Highs' Are Always Short Lived

Another concept that can be difficult for children to grasp is short term gratification. Sugar makes us feel good but only for a brief while. Over time, it ends up taking more added sugar to get the same amount of dopamine. So, unless children are constantly increasing their consumption to unsafe levels, that happy feeling turns into disappointment and cravings.

Sugar rich diets are not associated with mood disorders for no good reason. In fact, one of the largest studies to link sugar to depression says people who consume unhealthy amounts are 23% more likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder. For children who are learning to manage their emotions at school and at home, excess sugar can produce confusing feelings of sadness and anxiety.

Some Advice from Your Healthy Schools Programme

Though the distinction can be perplexing at times, schools must clearly distinguish between naturally occurring and added sugars. When discussing sugar awareness in class, you can use simple binaries like 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' sugars, but they should come with an explanation as to why.

Pupils need to understand the difference between the sugar in an apple and the sugar in a chocolate biscuit. The latter is refined and offers no nutritional value to the body or brain whereas the former contains dietary fibre, antioxidants and phytochemicals which slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream and ensure it can be used correctly.

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