As a Registered Nurse, I am often asked, "Is there one specific thing I can do to improve my child's health?" As a former home educator, I was often asked, "Is there one specific thing I can do to enhance my child's learning?" The answer is the same for both questions and it all begins with the brain...
Consider how amazing the brain is. It generates up to 23 watts of power while you are awake, which is enough to turn on a light bulb. Your brain is so smart that when you sleep, it creates a hormone to prevent you from acting out your dreams! It weighs only 3 pounds but requires 25% of all the energy your body needs. It never turns off. It controls your breathing, your eye blinking, every heartbeat, every thought, every emotion, and...well, it runs your life! Taking care of this valuable asset should be high on everyone’s agenda.
As home educators, we are very conscious of helping our children learn to think, to be wise, and to acquire knowledge. We go to great lengths to research curricula, create effective lesson plans, and look for opportunities to increase learning. All of theses things are important, but have you considered how you can support the organ that makes all this learning possible? What if there was one thing you could do to improve brain functioning for your child over their lifetime? Would you do it?
Brain cells require two times the energy needed by all the other cells in the body, or about 10% of your daily energy requirements. This energy is supplied by sugar. But the kind of sugar the brain needs is called glucose and it should come from eating foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. So sugar is not the brain’s enemy - “added sugar” is. Added sugars are sugars that are added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared. They do not include the naturally occurring sugars such as those found in fruits and milk.
Space does not permit me to adequately discuss the toxic effect that added sugar has on the brain. A cursory internet search will provide research articles linking chronic consumption of added sugar with: poor memory formation, learning disorders, depression, a reduced production of the brain chemical brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which contributes to insulin resistance, which leads to type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, which leads to...well you get the picture. These studies indicate serious damage to our brains from eating and drinking too much added sugar.
From this viewpoint, chronic added sugar consumption could be considered as serious a problem as smoking or alcoholism. Although this admonition is important for everyone, it is especially crucial for your children since their brains are still growing and forming until they reach their early twenties.
Most people say they don’t eat too much sugar. Do you know how much is too much?
The American Heart Association recommends no more than
- 3 teaspoons of added sugar a day for children ages 4 to 8 years old,
- 5 - 8 teaspoons for teens,
- 6 teaspoons for women, and
- 9 teaspoons for men.
The scary truth is that the average daily intake for four to eight year olds is twenty-one teaspoons. Teens average thirty-four teaspoons, and the average adult consumes twenty-nine teaspoons (about ¼ of our daily diet). You may find that hard to believe since much of the sugar we eat is “hidden” in our diet so we have no idea how much we are really consuming.
If your eight year old has one glass of juice and one cup of sweet cereal in the morning, she has already had over 2-3 times as much added sugar as her body can handle in a day. Then if she adds a cookie for lunch, ketchup on her fries and a peanut butter sandwich for a snack...you can see that she ends up with way too much sugar!
Does this mean your kids can never have their favorite treats anymore? Of course not! But raising awareness that foods with added sugar are harmful and teaching them how to spot foods with added sugars can help them to make better decisions about how much they eat and how often they eat it.
Some foods with added sugars are easy to recognize, like donuts, ice cream, and candy. Other foods and beverages with added sugar are less easy to spot, such as: ketchup, bread, fruit drinks, sport drinks, pasta sauce, peanut butter, and many cereals that are advertised as healthy.
Learning to read Nutrition Facts Labels on food packages together as a family is a great way to raise awareness of the sugar content in the foods you eat. But spotting added sugar requires a bit of detective work since manufacturers must list the product’s total amount of sugar per serving, but not how much of that sugar is added sugar. For that, you will need to look at the Ingredients List.
Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. The relative position of sugar in the list can give you an idea of whether the food has a lot or a little sugar in it. And sugar goes by many different names. Look out for these sources of added sugars in the Ingredient List: sugar, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), cane syrup, dextrose, fructose, and any other “ose.” A good rule regarding ingredient lists might be “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it!”
It is important to not switch from added sugar foods to foods with artificial sweeteners like aspartame. The aspartame molecule contains a precursor to formaldehyde: methyl alcohol. An enzyme in the brain converts the alcohol into formaldehyde! Suffice it to say that if you or your family uses any artificial sweeteners, please become knowledgeable about the new evidence-based research available. Use your brain to protect your brain :)
There are numerous strategies to help your family begin to crowd out toxic food choices and replace them with whole foods which the body and brain can use as fuel, but that is a subject for a future blog post.
So that one thing you could do to improve your child’s brain power...limit added sugar in their diet! (Of course empowering them to make wise decisions on their own is even better, but that’s two things and it doesn’t match my title :)
This post has no fat, no cholesterol, no additives, and no sugar...so I have included a little entertainment...
Hope you enjoy this unique performance of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy!”
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject!