How Sugar Affects Children’s Brains


You Need to Know How Sugar Affects Children’s Brains

How sugar affects children’s brains is essential to know, as sugar is everywhere we turn, and sugary foods are available 24/7.

There are not many places we can go without temptation from the sights and smells of ice cream, cupcakes, or other sugary treats. Even in the middle of the night, it’s quick and easy to pass by a drive-thru and get your donut, muffin, or fruit juice fix.

Sugar is taking a devastating toll on some children’s health.

Sugar hijacks the brain

When sugar hits the brain at the reward center, it acts in the same way a drug does: it releases a surge of dopamine that makes us feel good initially, but that lift doesn’t last. Over time, some people need more and more sugar to get that same boost. This starts the cycle of cravings, and in vulnerable children, addictions can be formed.

A study on mice published in the Journal of Neuroscience revealed that a high-sugar diet leads to changes in gut bacteria related to fatty liver disease and significant loss of cognitive flexibility, which is a measure of your brain’s ability to adapt to changing situations. Impairments in both long-term and short-term memory were also noted.

In addition, after four weeks of consuming excess sugar, the mice performed poorly on various tests related to mental and physical function compared to mice fed a regular diet.

Another disadvantage of giving your child a high-sugar meal or snack is the steep rise in blood sugar, which can leave some children feeling hyperactive, unfocused, and fidgety. Then, shortly after (within an hour or two), blood sugar will drop, leaving some children feeling hungry, weak, tired, and searching for the next boost of sugar.

Also linked to excess sugar consumption are Obesity and Diabetes, which were once very rare in children,  but are becoming commonplace today in our sugar-coated society.

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It’s Not Just Our Minds at Risk:

With the proliferation of sugar in high-rich foods on the market, the rates of Obesity and Diabetes in children are reaching unprecedented levels.

A piece of fruit, peanut butter, or even a treat like ice cream isn’t going to cause too much trouble if it is just a treat and not something you overindulge in. However, many adults and kids ARE overindulging, and this can have health consequences.

Just take a look at the sugar consumption trends of the past 300 years:

✓ In 1700, the average person consumed about 4 pounds of sugar per year.
✓ In 1800, the average person consumed about 18 pounds of sugar per year.
✓ In 1900, individual consumption had risen to 90 pounds of sugar per year.
✓ In 2009, more than 50 percent of all Americans consumed a one-half pound of sugar PER DAY!

Translating to a whopping 180 pounds of sugar per year!

Sugar is not found only in the tasty treats where we expect it. It’s found in many of the foods we give our children that we think or are told are ‘healthy”. People are amazed when they find out how much sugar is in a child’s diet.

Much marketing has gone in to change the appearance of sugar or give it another name. There are a lot of processed foods that may seem on the healthy side, but when you look at the food label, it usually has an unhealthy amount of added sugars.

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Some of the More Common Ones Are:

✓ Yogurt/frozen yogurt
✓ Sauces like BBQ, ketchup, tomato, or pasta sauce
✓ Salad dressing
✓ Oatmeal
✓ Canned/packaged fruit
✓ Cereal (even “healthy” ones)
✓ Cereal and granola bars
✓ Cheese spread
✓ Pretzels
✓ Nutrition drinks/smoothies

How Do We Cut Back On Sugar?

1. One way to reduce sugar in a child’s diet is to avoid processed and refined snacks and meals loaded with a particular kind of added sugar: high fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup is cheaper and sweeter than cane sugar.

When possible, serve home-cooked meals whenever possible to control the sugar intake.

Bake treats like muffins and cookies with healthier sugar options like raw honeydates, or organic cane sugar (see my previous posts on making healthy desserts!).

Try This Recipe For Chocolate Icing:

✓ 1 avocado
✓ 1⁄4 cup of coconut oil
✓ 1 tablespoon of raw cacao powder
✓ 1 cup pitted dates
✓ Blend in a food processor.


2. Read labels on any packaged food and choose cane sugar over fructose. Use these sweets as treats only to promote healthier eating habits and save them for a special occasion or the weekend to drastically reduce how much sugar your children consume.

Sugar isn’t BAD. There are no bad foods per se. Sugar and treats taste yummy. But we shouldn’t be indulging in them several times a day. Treats have their place in our diets and shouldn’t be totally restricted. But, limiting them can have profound impacts on a child’s health.

3. Watch this fantastic video called “Sugar is Killing Us “and use its information to help educate your children on the dangers of sugar consumption.

Quick tips for how to handle the onslaught of sugary treats:

  1. Let them choose some favorites.
  2. Throw or give the rest away.
  3. Keep the favorites in a safe place.
  4. Teach your children to eat them slowly, taking out one treat a day, not many each day. They will last longer!

As hard as it is now to keep your kids away from all the sugar surrounding them, it only gets more complex as they get older and may become more dependent on it. Healthy children with healthy eating habits grow into healthy adults with healthier eating habits.

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Frequently Asked Questions

1. Does sugar affect brain development?

A high-sugar diet can affect brain development. Scientific studies show that high levels of sugar can negatively impact the brain health of children, encompassing everything from cognitive function to psychological well-being. For example, a study by the University of Southern California found that sugary drinks, when ingested in large quantities, impact the brain’s ability to function normally.

Similarly, a study from UCLA (conducted on rats) found that increased sugar consumption slows down the brain.

High levels of sugar can also impact neurotransmitters responsible for stabilizing mood, leading to depression and anxiety in children. The more research being undertaken, the more worrying the findings are.

I would suggest limiting sugars as much as you can. It’s fine as a treat now and again, but it shouldn’t be something your child consumes high levels of every single day.

2. What happens when a child consumes too much sugar?

When a child consumes too much sugar, they are at risk of obesity and other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Additionally, it can contribute to complications associated with excess weight.

In the short term, too much sugar can impact your child’s energy levels (a spike in energy and then a down period after consumption); it can cause hyperactivity and also impact your child’s mood.

3. Can sugar make my child angry?

This is a highly debated topic. The consensus is that sugar impacts your child’s blood sugar levels, and when these fluctuate, it can lead to behavioral changes.

It would make sense that a child can become more irritable when they eat sugar.

While controlled studies have failed to confirm a direct correlation between sugar intake and anger or aggressive behavior in children, many parents and educators notice changes in behavior when children have consumed high sugar levels.

You might notice that sugar causes your child to be angrier than usual, and tracking these mood changes following what your child eats might be helpful in learning which foods you could limit.

4. How does sugar affect children’s learning?

In the long term, a very high sugar diet can impact children’s neurotransmitters and brain pathways, which can alter the brain’s ability to learn and retain information.

Professionals are currently unsure of the extent of this. In the short term, it can increase hyperactivity and lower attention levels, meaning that your child might struggle to concentrate in class, which directly impacts learning.

Hopefully, this blog post has helped you understand the impact of sugar on your child’s health. Let’s try to reduce sugar now while they are young to ensure optimal brain function and to prevent disease, obesity, and addiction problems in the future!



Jennifer Kranc RHN, RNCP

Written By: Jennifer Kranc RHN, RNCP

Nutritional Healing for Kids was founded by Jennifer Kranc, a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, who works to educate parents on healing their children with therapeutic nutrition.

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