by Michelle Mitchell – founder of Youth Excel
Firstly, I’m not a health expert. I am, however, the founder of Youth Excel’s Counselling Centre which helps young people make positive life choices during difficult times.
One positive life choice we encourage is healthy eating. In short, we see a strong link between mood and food.
Most agree that consuming sugary foods regularly dramatically impacts health, increasing the risk of tooth decay, obesity, mood disturbances, and even cancer.
The Australian Diabetes Council says Australian adults consume on average more than 20 teaspoons of sugar each day, compared to the recommended seven. More alarming is that 8-14 year olds consume an average of 21 teaspoons a day.
As a youth worker with an interest in mental health, my concern is sugar’s impact on mood.
I hear many young people report a ‘high’ when they eat or drink sugar.
This is because simple carbohydrates quickly turn into glucose in the bloodstream.
Simple carbohydrates are also found in fruits, veggies, and dairy products, but these have fibre and protein that slow the process.
When young people consume sugar, without fibre or protein, blood sugar levels spike dramatically.
Our body needs to move glucose out of the bloodstream and into cells for energy. To do this, the pancreas makes insulin, a hormone.
As glucose is removed from the blood stream, blood sugar levels suddenly drop, so the high experienced is quickly followed by a low.
This rapid change leaves young people feeling wiped out and shaky, often searching for more sweets to regain their energy.
Sugar highs and subsequent lows can result in a range of mood and behavioural challenges which impact relationships, mental health, learning and general wellbeing.
If young people are not aware of the link between mood and food, this can all go on without them understanding why they feel lousy.
Here are some symptoms that indicate a young person may be addicted to sugar:
- Strong craving for sugary foods and drinks
- Disinterest in eating protein or regular meals
- Difficulty eating sugar in moderation
- Lack of self-control
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
- Mood swings
- Reduction of overall health and immunity
Here are 9 tips to help kick the sweet habit:
- Lead by example
- Don’t stock snacks and sweets in the house
- Don’t make sugar a part of your daily routine
- Focus on health not weight
- Teach young people to listen to their body and how it feels when they eat healthy food
- Remember restricting diets is not the answer for all young people
- Ensure healthy foods are easily accessible
- Create a 5 minute awareness time before eating. Ask what do you want to eat and why?
- Develop a backup ‘healthier option’ food plan for sugar craving / crisis times
Breaking the cycle of sugar indulgence is easier said than done.
If the addiction is serious, I suggest parents work with a professional and talk through an age-appropriate plan of attack.
Some of these approaches include a cold turkey six-week detox; scaling down sugar systematically over time; or a six-day no sugar eating plan with one cheat day.
Despite their efforts, some families feel like they are losing the battle.
It is important for parents to know that some young people are more vulnerable to sugar addictions and may need more focused support.
Such young people include those who struggle with impulse control (ADD, ADHD); those who are not active or are overweight; and those who struggle with depression or anxiety.
In a world where treats are so accessible, and whole foods are more expensive and time consuming to prepare, I am not surprised that sugar addictions affect so many people.
I am all for growing foods with kids, preparing meals together and cultivating a love for the good things in life without nasty side effects.