Do your kids seem hyper after eating sweets? Don't blame the sugar. The real culprit may be, um, you.
Attend any toddler birthday party where cake and ice cream are served and you won't need convincing that the euphoric "sugar high" is a real thing. With kids running crazy and sometimes literally bouncing off the walls, it can lead anyone to believe, "It has to be the sugar." Well, probably not.
Research suggests that the link between sugar and hyper-active behavior may not actually exist. The studies point to no real change in behavior in the child, but instead, a change in parent expectations. Since we as parents seem to expect the hyper-active behavior after our kids scarf down an ice cream cone, we are hypervigilant, seeking out erratic behavior at every turn. So when we see it (which we will because our kids are kids, right?), we associate it with the sugar. Besides our over-awareness, don't forget that many times sugary treats are a part of fun events too, like those awesome birthday parties, baseball games, and pool days. So, that euphoric feeling may also be a reflection of the fact that your child is having an amazing time!
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But, with all of this proof, why is it still so hard for me to believe that a sugar high isn't real? Perhaps history can explain things. As a kid, my mom had to literally lock-down the sweets in our house because she was convinced it held crazy power over my brother and me. One chocolate bar for my brother meant the house would instantly turn into a disaster zone. Those memories and images likely still hold power in my brain, and even now as a mom and dietitian, I keep my sweets on the highest shelf in the pantry.
And, of course, even if a "sugar high" isn't real or as meaningful as we thought it was, there are still other reasons to limit added sugars in our diets. Americans consume too many calories from added sugars. And unfortunately our children, adolescents, and young adults consume the most, with up to 18 percent of their daily calories coming from added sugar (think sweetened beverages, desserts, and sweet snacks). The Dietary Guidelines recommend less than 10 percent. So while the sugar high may not exist, our children's "sweet teeth" definitely do.
What to do then? The other day, when we shared some ice cream, my little one seemed as bouncy and nutty as ever. But looking back on that moment, she wasn't acting out, she was just pumped. It was excitement for something that she doesn't get all the time. So, maybe those researchers were right. Maybe I am the parent looking for the "sugar-high" behavior. But here's the bottom line—you know your kids best, so do what's best for them. Let them be kids. Treat them, of course, but don't over-do it. Finally, help them develop a healthy relationship with food—you certainly can't go wrong with that.
Sara Haas is a food and nutrition expert with formal training in the culinary arts. She works as a freelance writer, recipe developer, media authority, and consultant dietitian/chef. Follow her on her blog, on Twitter, or Instagram.