Sugar and its impact on our children’s health, behaviour, learning and mood has become a hot topic over the last couple of years. As a natural survival instinct our primitive brains are drawn to immediate and high-energy food sources and for this reason sugar addresses our needs. However, it is important to recognise that sugars are not all created equal and understanding a little about sugars, their release and healthy alternatives can be hugely insightful within early years settings for both the adults and children.
Simple carbohydrates are basically sugars that, depending on the source, come in different forms such as fructose, glucose and sucrose.
- Fructose is otherwise known as fruit sugar and is also found in maple syrup and honey. It is very sweet and is thought to boost appetite.
- Glucose can be found abundantly in fruits, honey and starchy root vegetables.
- Sucrose, which is common table sugar, is added to many processed and manufactured foods and drinks and is also found naturally in some fruits.
It is also worth noting that when complex carbohydrates, such as oats, rice, and rye have been processed much of their goodness has been removed and they act in a similar way to the simple carbohydrates in the body. This includes white rice, pasta and bread.
Each form of sugar can be metabolised differently, therefore its impact can also be different.
How we metabolise sugar
All the body’s cells utilise glucose for energy. Glucose and sucrose (which is 50% glucose) are both considered fast release sugars, which rapidly enter the bloodstream. They illicit the release of insulin to accompany the glucose into the cells where it can be used for energy and any excess is either stored in the muscles or the liver, or it is converted to body fat. Refined carbohydrates such as white bread, rice and pasta are also metabolised in this way.
Other forms of sugar such as fructose don’t trigger insulin, as they need to be converted into glucose for the body to utilise them and this process is carried out primarily in the small intestines or liver. For this reason, the release of glucose into the bloodstream is slower but the possible impact on digestive and liver health has been linked to IBS and fatty liver disease.
The impact of high sugar diets has been associated with increased weight gain, increased inflammation in the body, risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, some cancers and tooth decay. Aside from these long-term risks, the impact on mood, energy, behaviour and cognition for children is significant, which is why weaning them off sugar will be hugely beneficial.
How to wean children off sugar
Weaning children off a food they love is not easy, but by making a few changes the process doesn’t need to become daunting or depriving – as over time tastes do change and life long approaches can develop.
When planning breakfasts, lunches, snacks or cookery time in early years settings it’s vital to focus on slow release carbohydrates or combine foods that will help to slow the release of sugars. Carbohydrate sugars, which release glucose slower, are those which are higher in fibre such as an apple in contrast to the fast release of grapes or watermelon. If sugars are also eaten with protein this will provide better blood-glucose balance. Therefore fibre and protein are key recommendations for healthy eating and specifically when weaning children off sugar. It is also important to be on the look out for surprisingly high levels of “hidden” sugar in pre-made meals, sauces, some yoghurts, drinks and children’s snacks.
Some healthy sugar alternatives
- Swap dried fruit, which lacks water and is highly concentrated in sugar, for fresh fruit.
- Choose domestic fruits over tropical as these release glucose slower. Opt for apples, pears, berries and plums.
- Swap muesli/snack bars for home-made flapjacks or seed/nut bites. Use fruit such as apple or banana to sweeten and add nuts and seeds for protein.
- In baking, reduce added sugar in recipes and try swapping for natural alternatives that contain other nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Try maple syrup or honey.
- Swap biscuits for oatcakes with cream cheese.
- Swap fruit yoghurts for natural Greek yoghurt and add fresh fruit and honey.
- Swap refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta and rice for wholegrain versions, half and half or try alternatives such as chickpea pasta, courgette spaghetti or cauliflower rice. Follow the link for more creative healthy swaps.
About the author
The Food Teacher, Katharine Tate, is an award winning nutritional therapist, teacher, mum, and entrepreneur who has over 20 years experience working with children and schools in the UK, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. She has founded The Food Teacher brand that combines her passion for education and nutrition to deliver a healthy childhood, focusing on promoting family health through food and lifestyle.