The Addiction We All Have but Can’t Break

New guidelines for sugar intake may make a difference in your family's diet

At the onset of a “sugar high” — poof! — kids seem to turn into little monsters. They go zipping around the house, bouncing off the walls, screaming and then crying, and babbling all sorts of nonsense. Is it the homemade cookies Grandma gave them behind your back — or is it the tall glass of orange juice and granola bar you just gave them, thinking that was a healthy snack?

“I do not believe in sugar highs based on the behavior of my children and the behavior of people’s other children,” said Jeffrey Kelly, a Washington State-based business coach and parent of a six-year-old boy and one-year-old girl. “My friends who are parents and believe in sugar highs have kids that modify their behavior after they eat sweets to the sugar high expectation.”

While there is no contesting that blood sugar changes after we eat — could he be right?

Research over the past few years has tried to figure out if the term “sugar high” is just an empty phrase. The latest studies out of a number of different medical schools including Yale, University of Kentucky and the University of Iowa all contradict the belief that sugar and other additives cause hyperactivity in children, a theory first surmised by Dr. Ben F. Feingold in the 1970s.

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“Sugar may actually have a calming effect on children due to the quick rise and fall in blood sugar after they consume a sugary substance,” said Andrea Cox, who is the in-house nutritionist at and is based in Portland, Oregon. While studies continue to look into whether food additives and dyes have an effect on hyperactivity, sugar is not to blame, she added.

She added, though, that children should be limited to just three to four teaspoons a day to avoid cavities and attention span issues.

The federal government agrees, and in January 2016, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture released new dietary guidelines that focus specifically on reducing daily sugar intake. Consumers are supposed to limit consumption of added sugar to 10 percent or less of the daily calorie intake.

The guidelines follow a recent study done by the National Institutes of Health focusing on obese children and their sugar intake. The study proved that after just 10 days of limited sugar intake in their diet, there was a significant change in blood pressure, cholesterol readings and other health indicators.

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This does not include sugars from fruit and vegetables. Instead, it’s focused on the ones in Grandma’s cookies, those donuts you might give your kids while running out the door in the morning, all of the ice cream, sugar-loaded cereal, sodas, juices and leftover Halloween candy.

“Maybe it’s not so much the chemical makeup of sugar reacting with our bodies and blood,” said Karen Lock Kolp, who hosts a podcast on parenting called “The Modern Parent’s Guide to Old-School Parenting.” “Instead, it’s more the social messages we transmit when sugar is in high supply, such as at birthdays. The feeling is different than on other days, and for kids that translates into ‘higher spirits.’”

Whether or not they agree on the issue of an actual “sugar high,” health experts say the focus of this conversation needs to remain on managing sugar intake.

“Sugar is a stress on their bodies,” said Dr. Carolyn Dean, who has worked with children’s nutrition issues for more than 25 years and written dozens of books on the topic. “Have them take magnesium, an anti-stress mineral after the sugar. Magnesium, as one of the key electrolytes, is an excellent example of a concentration and energy nutrient. It activates enzymes that control digestion, absorption, and the utilization of proteins, fats and carbohydrates.”

Dr. Dean said monitoring your child’s diet will make a difference both in the short term and long term, whether it’s for health, behavior or other reasons. Getting creative and clever with food, and incorporating more exotic fruits, veggies and nuts can offer a sweet variety and better nutrition.

“He tends to behave like a drug addict, and the tantrums when he doesn’t get sugar are ridiculous,” said Melanie McShane, a Southern Californian parent, about her eight-year-old. “By limiting his excess sugar, we greatly reduce the fights about sugar and he chooses to eat healthier foods.”

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