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The scene is one so many of us are familiar with: Kids running around a birthday party or family holiday event, “hopped up on sugar,” wild with excitement, sticky with joy, fueled by corn syrup, frosting, and gummy products. Then, the party is over and the misery begins. The crash—so often full of tears and/or screams—can ruin the rest of the day. So Sumner Brooks, a registered dietician, eating disorder specialist, and co-author of How to Raise an Intuitive Eater: Raising the Next Generation with Food and Body Confidence lets us in on the secrets of how to avoid the dreaded “sugar rush.”
Do kids actually get hyper from sugar?
Children get crazed not because of any properties in sugar that cause hyperactivity. Studies show that sugar itself does not change behavior, so the “sugar rush” as a physical phenomenon does not exist. Yet, you know your child does act differently after consuming a bunch of sweets. This is for several reasons.
First, the environment plays a factor. Think back to the busy, loud birthday party or the chaotic, even stressful family holiday. “The reason why we perceive kids to experience sugar rushes is not all that surprising: they are excited, stimulated, and energized,” Brooks says. Sensory overload and peers encouraging more energetic behavior make for a raucous party. “Kids and adults are likely to exhibit abnormal or different behavior in these types of situations, and we simply don’t need to blame it on food or sugar.”
Also, the placebo effect can come into play. When kids hear, “sugar makes you hyper,” from parents, they play the part. So, the first piece of advice on how to prevent sugar rushes is to stop blaming behavior on sugar. Eating foods with lots of sugar still might not make you or your child feel well, so Brooks offers tips for navigating a sugar-heavy event.
Discuss expectations before an event
There are several ways to set yourself and your child up for success at an event where they might otherwise have had behavior issues. “Behavioral expectations should be and can be communicated clearly before the ‘party,’” Brooks says. Set boundaries and consequences before you enter a new environment. Brooks suggests you, “Talk about what will happen when it’s time to go, manners you expect to see around food, gifts, friendships, etc.”
While basic manners aren’t directly related to sugar consumption, they do set a civilized tone. Then, when it comes to food, Brooks suggests you remind your child to drink water throughout the event or say, “if you want any help building your plate at the party let me know,” making sure dessert will still be part of the meal. She says the focus should be that you want everyone to feel well during and after the event.
Give kids a pre-party snack
In her work as a dietician, Brooks says, “People sometimes confuse energy with hyperactivity.” Sugar, or any carbohydrate, is energizing, and Brooks says the “fast-paced, excited, or loud” behavior we see after kids have sugar is often the effect of increased blood sugar. “In actuality, low blood sugar tends to cause many more issues for kids behaviorally than eating sugar does,” because low blood sugar can cause “extreme moodiness, tiredness, or lack of patience and less capacity for critical thinking,” she says. You might call this a “sugar crash.”
To combat the crash, Brooks says it’s a good idea to “offer your child a snack about an hour or so before you go to a party, so that they don’t have an empty stomach or low blood sugar in scenarios where the food might be unpredictable or unappealing to them.” She says, “nutritionally, try to provide a balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrate in their day leading up to the event,” but, “if they’re excited, they may not have as much of an appetite,” so, in that case, shoot for string cheese, yogurt, milk, or peanut butter and jelly.
Pay attention at the event
Once you arrive at the party, hopefully with a solid meal under your child’s belt and clear expectations, don’t let them run wild. “Although none of us parents want to hear this part, it can also be in response to parenting that may be different in certain situations where we believe kids have ‘sugar rushes,’” Brooks says. Kids sometimes notice they can “get away” with more during these events, as they aren’t being watched as closely by distracted, socializing adults. They also have the freedom to eat foods they are otherwise denied.
You know your kid better than anyone, so Brooks says you need to tune into what your particular kid needs in any given scenario. Some kids snack when they are anxious, overwhelmed, or uncomfortable. Brooks says, “If you have a child who may be in this category, they really need you to be there and engage with them in these situations” instead of spending the party with the other adults.
Be careful how you talk about sugar consumption
Sneaky kids hear us even when we think they’re not listening. “I wish we could celebrate their joy instead of constantly turning to sugar jokes and sugar shaming,” Brooks says. “When most of the adults around them are commenting and complaining about ‘sugar,’” she says kids “want to rebel and do what the adults don’t want them to do. So my best advice is to keep all the sugar comments quiet.”
She implores parents to model relaxed language around food, even foods we might think of as “naughty.” Instead of, “keep that away from me,” she says to say, “Oh, there’s cake. I’m going to have a piece, do you want one?” Or “Does a piece of cake sound good to you right now?”
For the kid who overeats
Many kids overindulge at parties because they are not allowed to have certain foods at home. And some kids merely enjoy sweets more than others. “For a child who you observe repeatedly over-consuming sugary foods,” Brooks says, “put less attention on controlling their sugar intake, and more attention on what might be going on for them. The very best thing we can do is stay calm, not judge, not punish them for wanting the sugar, and keep the experience positive.”
For “a child who repeatedly overconsumes sweets to the point of not feeling well,” Brooks has a few ideas to reduce the anxiety over not getting to have the cherished sugar but to keep your kid from having a stomach ache. She says, “suggesting they can pick something to take home for later, or offering to get some of that food for home to assure them they can have it at another time and this isn’t the only opportunity,” helps them begin to learn their limits in the moment with compassion.
Brooks says you have an opportunity in these moments because kids “need to hear you say that they can be trusted to listen to their body.” Kids make a transition from being completely dependent on their parents to being able to trust their own bodies—how we talk about food and bodies is a great way to teach them this important skill.