Do you want to help your moody toddler be happier?
Have you ever heard someone tell you that your toddler is going to be bouncing off the walls if you feed them too much sugar? Maybe you have noticed a shift in mood with your own toddler after they eat sugary things. Or maybe, hours after eating something sweet your toddler will crash or have a tantrum much worse than normal. Or maybe, these tantrums are a frequent thing and you want to know if you can help.
The terrible twos or threes are already hard enough without something external making toddlers even more moody!
Sugar can have a huge impact on our bodies. I want to provide some insight as to why sugar can have a negative affect on toddlers and how this knowledge can be used to help stabilize a toddler’s moods.
Background: Why and How does Sugar Affect a Toddler
And generally considered a major reason why so many people are overweight. Many people don’t understand that not only can sugar have a huge impact on your waistline, but it can affect mood and cause long time mood issues.
Potatoes Not Prozac: Solutions for Sugar Sensitivity is a book I highly recommend to understand more about sugar and how it may affect the human body. The author, Dr. Kathleen Desmaisons, talks about her research on sugar sensitivity and how it can affect addiction and mood.
When processed by our bodies, sugar causes the body to release serotonin. Serotonin is what is often referred to as the “happy chemical.”
Serotonin is a mood stabilizer as well as being essential for sleeping, eating, healing, bone health, and much more.
No wonder why eating sugar feels and tastes so good! If it makes our body release this chemical then what’s the problem?
Well. Having a chemical stimulated unnaturally in our bodies can interrupt the natural processes that create that chemical. If your body receives a signal to over-create a chemical, pretty soon the normal level changes. Your body no longer produces a normal amount of that chemical without a boost from a stimulant: such as sugar. Your body will stop working the way it should.
So what happens when the sugar stops and your body isn’t producing that happy chemical?
This is especially apparent in little humans who have yet to develop control over their emotions. But to their credit, I know a lot of adults who have tantrums when deprived of their morning frappuccino or afternoon candy bar.
Long term high sugar intake has been linked to mood disorders directly related to the body’s ability to produce serotonin, such as depression.
If children are introduced to processed sugars early in life then they are more likely to struggle to control their sugar intake for the rest of their lives.
During daily life, a sugary drink may actually calm a child down initially. This is from the release of the serotonin. But once that sugar wears off and the production of serotonin slows, that happy toddler can crash worse then she would have had she had food that didn’t trigger hyper-stimulation of serotonin.
Understanding Sugar, The Glycemic Index, and Glycemic Load
Just to clarify before we get more in depth with sugar, when I refer to sugar I mean not only table sugar, brown sugar, all the things with sugar in the name, but I also am referring to processed sugars such as high-fructose syrup, refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, pastas.
These carbohydrates are easily used by the body which creates spikes in blood sugar levels instead of nice, even levels.
When blood glucose levels spike because of this easily used carbohydrate, then the body begins to produce insulin. Insulin is the body’s way of removing glucose from the blood and transporting it to other cells in the body– such as the nerve cells that produce serotonin. With an immense amount of sugar present the body produces a ton of insulin which causes the blood sugar to drop dramatically once the insulin delivers the sugar away from the blood.
As the sugar is distributed to the cells of your body, serotonin is released from your nerve cells. This causes the calmness, the feeling of well-being, and general happiness. However, the drop in blood sugar from the high levels of insulin cause a dramatic drop in serotonin levels once the sugar is no longer being distributed.
When you eat un-refined carbohydrates with a good amount of fiber, the body is much slower to process this and slowly releases the carbohydrates into the body at a level rate. This makes sure your blood sugar and serotonin don’t spike.
The Glycemic Index was developed to understand how quickly foods are processed by the body. This system was developed when people with empty stomachs were given different types of foods to see how quickly their body converted the food to blood glucose.
So with this in mind, the Glycemic Index can be misleading. If you usually only eat one item at a time than this is a good reference, however, Glycemic Load is a more accurate measure of how one’s entire meal may affect blood sugars. Glycemic Load is the measure of how the foods of a meal interact with one another.
Glycemic Load = Glycemic Index/100 multiplied by the net grams of carbohydrate.
Net carbohydrate is the total grams of carbohydrate minus the
Translation: the more fiber a carbohyrdate rich meal has, the less of an impact a meal will make on blood sugar levels. This is why juices have such a high impact on blood sugar, there is no fiber to slow the digestion. In addition, processed carbohydrates such as white bread and rice have had much of their fiber removed.
Protein and fat slow digestion and therefore can help balance higher glycemic foods.
Meats, eggs, spices, and herbs do not affect the glycemic load. Avocados are also great options for low glycemic food due to their high plant-based fat and fiber.
By no means am I saying that you have to follow the Glycemic Load to a T in order to have a happy toddler. It is just something to consider when preparing meals for your child.
How to Avoid Toddler Sugar Crashes and Spikes
Your child is most likely going to encounter sugar. Whether it be a birthday party a special day out with a grandparent, you just have to bake some cookies, whatever.
Tips to help your child handle sugar and the affect it has on her body:
- Have your child eat a meal with the high glycemic foods or juices. This will help balance out the glycemic load.
- If your child can’t eat a full meal, offer them a high fat or high protein snack. Same principle as the meal.
- Plan for a crash! Have an escape mapped out if you’re in public. Stuff happens, sometimes this is your only option!
Tips to help prevent your child from eating high glycemic foods:
- Plan ahead. Meal prep so you and your toddler don’t get too hungry and reach for the quick sugary pick-me-up. (For more tips, see this post on meal prep).
- Pack your own snacks and meals when you’re leaving the house for more than an hour. (I know that’s pretty extreme, every hour?! I feel like the moment we are out of the house my children decide that is when they are hungry. Better to be safe and nutritious than sorry and sugary!)
- If your child is tempted by sodas, bring sparkling waters. Be sure to get the ones that say 0 sugar, 0 calories, and do not have sugar replacements. It is also important to regulate those that are flavored using citric acid. Try to avoid these as they can contribute to tooth decay.
- Eat whole grains. When checking nutrition labels, make sure it says 100% whole grain, no added sugars. Added sugars are a way that producers sneak extra flavor into their foods. Often these are hidden by foods that already contain natural sugars. Thanks to the new requirements for nutrition labels, processed foods must now list how many added sugars are in their foods.
- Encourage your child to eat a high protein, high fiber breakfast. (I get it if this doesn’t happen, my toddlers absolutely refuse to eat breakfast! Just feed them when you can!)
- Fruit and Veggies with every meal! Fruit can stand-in as a desert rather than sugar-filled deserts.
- Only offer your child water or milk during regular meals. Limit juices. Save the sugar spikes for actual food.
Whew! This was a lot of information and just a drive-by! If you want more information, sign up for our mailing list! You’ll be notified when new posts are out!
Potatoes Not Prozac: Solutions for Sugar Sensitivity by Kathleen DesMaisons Ph.D.
Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease by A. Catherine Ross
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