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Can too much sugar make teens violent?

It is common to hear of parents remarking on their kid’s hectic behaviour when having slammed too much of the sweet stuff.

Whether it is lack of concentration, having extra energy to burn, or the desire to be a little bit naughty, anecdotally people can find food and drink that is high in added or free sugar (and that is generally heavily processed) results in the kid acting out of sorts.

But can too much sugar be linked to violent or other risky behaviours? Well, according to new research, perhaps so.

The study
Researchers from Bar Ilan University and UNICEF took data from the World Health Organization’s collaborative Healthy Behaviour in School-aged Children study and assessed the intake of obviously sweet foods, high in added or free sugar including sweets (lollies or chocolate) and sugary drinks in 137,284 kids, aged 11, 13 and 15 years, from 26 different countries.1

They measured the intake of sugary food and drink against risk behaviours: physical fighting, bullying, cigarette use, alcohol use, and drunkenness.

For most countries, independent of age, gender, socio-economic status and psychological well-being, the researchers found a strong, consistent, significant relationship – the higher the sugar intake, the greater the percentage of children involved with one or multiple risk behaviours.

Additionally, the number of countries used in the study indicates such an issue is not necessarily isolated to a specific culture or ethnicity. The findings suggest that a teen’s poor diet loaded with large amounts of sugary drinks and food could be considered a “red flag” for those living and working with teens with involvement in risk behaviours.

Soft drinks were also found to have a stronger relationship than sweets with substance use and peer violence. More research is needed to establish if other ingredients in these drinks also play a role in promoting such behaviours.

Correlation but more research needed
While there is a connection, this does not prove a direct cause and effect relationship between sugary drinks and risky behaviours. Socio-economic status and psychological well-being were also strongly associated with risk behaviours.

However, the study “…underscores the importance of directing public health attention to the interconnections between healthy nutrition and behavioral tendencies during critical adolescent years of childhood.”1

Previous research has raised concern over the physical and mental impact energy drink intake has on our youth, with the combination of added sugar, caffeine and other ingredients potentially increasing risk for harder substance abuse later in life.

Alongside interventions aimed at addressing substance use and peer violence, the authors suggest the sales of sweets to children in places such as centres children frequent and schools should be regulated, and the sugar content in soft drinks be reduced.

Food matters
What this study may show is the importance of good nutrition in a child’s and teen’s life, a time when there is increased growth, activity and development of the body and brain, as well as learning how to act and interact in the world.

There are many factors that influence a child’s diet, including culture, convenience and environment, which need to be considered in creating a nutritious and beneficial approach to eating. And school is one place where sugary drinks and other high sugar foods have no place.

Schools that have a water only policy have found improvements in student health and behaviour and these improvements are extending beyond the schoolyard and into the local community.

If you have concerns about your teen’s risky behaviours, check out a Raising Children Network’s article on the topic. If you are looking for further information and easy to apply education on improving nutrition and reducing sugar consumption in your household, check out our 30-Day Kick Start program, or bring such knowledge to teens directly at school with our School Action Toolkit.

By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)

 

References

  1. Bruckauf, Z & Walsh, SD 2018, ‘Adolescents’ multiple and individual risk behaviors: Examining the link with excessive sugar consumption across 26 industrialized countries’, Social Science & Medicine, vol. 216, pp. 133-141.

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