Some parents are careful not to give sweets to their children in the evening, to avoid cavities. They also sometimes avoid large amounts of sugar, to avoid the bursts of overwhelming excitement caused by this influx of sugar into the blood. Some are also concerned about the impact of sugar on children’s gut health and microbiota. Generally speaking, it is difficult to assess the right amount of sugar for children, although there is evidence that too much sugar can have a negative impact on several levels. While sugar is the main source of energy for the brain to fuel its growth, learning and proper development, too much sugar can, on the contrary, interfere with normal brain growth in children.
A diet high in processed sugars can upset the chemical balance of the brain
The brain also needs adequate nutrition for optimal functioning. Certain dietary components such as amino acids, which form the basis of proteins, act as precursors to brain chemicals. Amino acids therefore also play an important role in mood, learning and cognitive functions. Glucose, on the other hand, is the main source of energy for nerve cells, or neurons, and maintenance cells, called glial cells in the brain. The brain needs about 20% of the energy needs of the human body to perform all of its functions, including learning, memory and cognitive processes, which develop during childhood. Brain function and growth are regulated by chemicals, and an imbalance of these critical neurotransmitters can cause a myriad of ailments, affecting learning, mood, and behaviors. Similarly, a poor quality or unbalanced diet, such as a diet too high in processed sugars, can upset the chemical balance of the brain.
Sweet foods are the focus of children’s activities
Lina Begdache, a clinical nutritionist at Binghamton University, specializes in understanding the impact of diet and lifestyle on brain function and mental well-being. According to his early research, eating sugary foods stimulates the brain, leading to hyperactivity and mood swings that could trigger mental distress (such as anxiety and depression), as well as disrupted sleep. In an article for The Conversation, Lina Begdache acknowledges that controlling sugar consumption is not easy, in a context where processed foods, such as industrial pastries, drinks and sugary cereals, rich in added sugars, preservatives, salts and saturated fats (aimed at increasing taste, texture or shelf life) are increasingly available to families. These foods are even sometimes at the center of activities intended exclusively for children and adolescents, such as birthday parties, school parties, and during traditional festivals. Processed foods, however, have a lower nutritional value than fruits, vegetables, dried fruits and seeds.
Childhood hyperactivity linked to overconsumption of sugar could lead to cognitive deficits in adulthood
The more sugar there is in a food, the more the child will tend to choose it, because sweets activate the brain’s reward system. However, too much sugar can stimulate the brain so much that it leads to hyperactivity and mood swings. These behavioral changes are only the short-term consequences. Some evidence suggests that this brain hyperactivity in adolescents may be linked to cognitive deficits in adulthood. Too many sweets can also trigger anxiety issues and difficulty managing emotions. Research also suggests that there is a strong relationship between high sugar intake, altered behaviors and poor emotional regulation. This would be explained by the stimulation of sugar on the limbic system. Within this system, a tiny structure called the amygdala processes emotional information. Over-activation of the amygdala is associated with exaggerated emotions such as fear and anxiety. Finally, sugar could also alter intestinal bacteria, and disrupt the immune system in adulthood, but also learning ability and memory.