Have you ever given your kid an ice cream cone or candy bar and watched the immediate high unravel in a dizzying whirl? You know where I am going with this article. Sugar and simple carbohydrates (you got it – another form of sugar) is jacking up your child’s anxiety. And if your child is not already anxious, sugar and simple carbs has the ability to create anxiety in your child over time. We are talking about cookies, cupcakes, donuts, bagels, pasta, muffins, potato chips, soda, sports drinks, juice and flavored milk. We are talking about foods and beverages that make the average kid salivate at the mere suggestion one is coming his/her way.
I am not advocating for elimination. I am advocating for informed decision-making as a parent. The issue is not one donut or one cookie. The problem is we as a society have moved away from one weekly treat to a daily treat and now meals are treats. In fact, many children can no longer decipher between a real meal and a treat meal. It is all the same for them. Snack after snack, meal after meal, the grams of sugar stack up and when they stack up – they jack up your child’s brain. No, I am not trying to write dramatically. I am writing honestly. Your child’s brain is being affected by the endless supply of sugar in all forms.
Anxiety, in and of itself, fosters a “revved up” mind. No sugar is needed. An anxious brain moves quickly from worry to worry zooming through thoughts at record speed. Racing thoughts lead to a racing heart and the entire system begins to act on high alert : sweating, shaky hands, nausea, increased respirations and this is only the beginning. Soon you have a child who is on the verge of a panic attack.
Now throw sugar in the mix. I think you follow. Studies have noted that sugar impedes the body’s ability to cope with stress. Science suggests that a diet of sucrose followed by fasting creates a state of anxiety in lab animals. Yale scientists note sugar addiction is real and like any addiction it creates over time structural changes within the brain. I don’t know about you but as a parent that doesn’t feel so good. Some studies will argue that sugar cannot create anxiety; however, they acknowledge it can worsen symptoms or mimic anxiety. I argue as a therapist – who cares? If it is mimicking anxiety in a child, it still feels like anxiety. And that has to be addressed. If it worsens symptoms and in other studies it is cited as a source of depression then we know it can contribute to the creation of anxiety. How many lab rats do we really need to tell us what I believe to be common sense?
Moving on- when many children feel anxious they appear irritable; irritable because they are on edge. How do you walk your child back from the ledge? One significant step in the right direction is reducing simple carbohydrates and sugar from your child’s diet. I can say this in no uncertain terms these food groups are damaging your child’s mental health.
Again, you do not have to eliminate sugar from your child’s diet but you should ensure they do not exceed 24 grams a day (about 6 teaspoons). I didn’t arbitrarily make up this number rather it is the dietary guidelines of the American Heart Association. In a future article, I will tell you why I think this is double what it should be. I try to keep my kid’s added sugar to 12 grams a day. How do you track this? If you eat packaged foods, read the labels. Many yogurts contain 16 grams in one serving. Eat a single serving of sweetened yogurt and there goes more than half your child’s daily allowance at breakfast!
Teaching your children healthy coping mechanisms to attack the anxiety is great but they cannot fully work unless you alter their diet in conjunction. Your children’s diet contributes to how their brain functions. I am not touting perfection in eating. I am not touting judgment. I am touting an understanding of how food impacts the mood. Just like a person with heart disease shouldn’t eat a steady diet of cheeseburgers and donuts; a person with anxiety should not have a steady diet of chocolate milk and muffins.
How To Keep From Jacking Up Your Child’s Anxiety?
- Trade juice, sports drinks, and soda for water, sparkling water or herbal tea.
- Switch flavored milk for good ole’ white milk.
- Swap flavored yogurt for plain and add your own sweetener and fruit if necessary.
- Substitute cereal for homemade granola.
- Switch cookies and cakes for fresh fruit, dark chocolate, or homemade trail mix.
- Make dessert a weekly treat and really enjoy it! I look forward to mine each week. Deprivation is never the answer to sustainable changes.
I promise within two to four weeks your child’s taste buds and behavior will change. The brain will always be more resilient when it is nourished in a healthy manner. Now get off your computer and get outside with your kids. Enjoy the spring weather – that will jack up their happiness!