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5/1/23 blog post

fueling your child's mental wellness through nutrition

the surprising impact of sugar and caffeine in drinks

girl drinking a dark colored soda with a red and white striped straw

When your body feels good it is easier to make decisions that support your mental health. If you’re a parent or caregiver, you may find it challenging to give your children the best nutrition for their mental health while juggling busy schedules, food preferences and the independence of your child and teen. But it’s worth the work because studies show that:  

  • Proper nutrition is essential for children's mental health because it plays a significant role in brain development and function.  
  • The nutrients in healthy foods help build and maintain the brain's structure, affect neurotransmitters that regulate mood and behavior, and support cognitive processes such as memory and learning. 
  • What you eat can influence the risk of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. 

Dayton Children’s nutrition expert, Emily Callen, says one easy way to target better nutrition for the mind and body is by focusing on sugar and caffeine intake.  

“Generally, sugary beverages should be a once-in-a-while treat, and beverages that contain caffeine should be limited,” she explains.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following guidelines for daily caffeine intake:  

  • Under 12 years old: no caffeine 
  • 12-18 years old: no more than 100 mg of caffeine 
  • Under 12 years old: no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of sugar a day 
  • 12-18 years old: no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of sugar a day 

how sugar and caffeine affects the body

If you take a look at a label for a regular energy drink, you may notice that there could be anywhere more than 200 calories, more than 50 grams of sugar and more than 150 mg of caffeine! So, if your teen consumes just one energy drink, they are looking at two days’ worth of sugar and more than a days’ worth of caffeine. But why do these recommendations exist and why does this matter?  

The sugar can cause a spike in your teen’s blood sugar. When their body senses a spike in blood sugar there will be a release of insulin to take the sugar out of the blood stream. This will cause a rapid decrease in blood sugar that will feel like a “sugar crash.”  That crash can make your teen irritable, lethargic, and craving something sugary again. 

What can be so concerning about energy drinks is that all of this is paired with the effects of caffeine. “Caffeine can increase anxiety, irritability, and disrupt sleep, which can impact a child's mood and behavior. It's important for children to have a balanced diet and limit their intake of caffeine and sugary foods and drinks to promote good mental health,” Emily explains. 

how to help your teen make healthier beverage choices 

While you could make the decision to not buy these sugary drinks at home, when your child or teen is out on their own they may want to make other decisions! Part of growing up is becoming more independent, so how do you talk to your teen about sugar and caffeine so that they make healthier decisions on their own?  

“When starting these conversations, the goal should be to help them make informed decisions and get them to notice how drinking these beverages actually makes their body feel,” says Emily.  

You can ask some of these conversation-starter questions:  

  • What was your mood right after finishing your beverage? What about an hour later? Do you feel like what you ate or drank had anything to do with that? 
  • Did you have a hard time sleeping after you had an energy drink? 
  • What are some better options that will be fun but will help you feel better? (Look up other beverages they enjoy and look at the sugar and caffeine content together) 
  • What do you feel is a reasonable frequency to consume these beverages? 
  • If you consume caffeine, what time do you think you can consume your last caffeinated beverage, so it doesn’t impact your sleep? (The earlier the better, noon to 2 pm is recommended to stop consuming caffeine). 

When having these conversations, being positive is important. Let them know that they deserve to enjoy what they eat and drink, and they deserve to eat food that makes them feel good. Avoid making comments like these:  

  • "You are drinking too much sugar! That is going to make you fat."
  • "Those energy drinks are so terrible and bad for you!"
  • "I hate that you and your friends drink those drinks."

staying mentally fit

By encouraging kids to make better nutrition choices for themselves, we can empower them to remain physically and mentally fit.  

That’s why during Mental Health Awareness Month in May, we’re on a campaign to focus on being mentally fit, what that means and how you can achieve it for yourself while also supporting the kids in your life. Read more about staying mentally fit here



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