Men's Journal

Would You Give Your Kindergartner Cocaine? How About Sugar?

Studies show sugar impairs memory skills and is detrimental to their brain. Mieke Dalle / Getty Images

Here’s an experiment: Have a chat with your five-year-old when he's nice and chill, maybe during that magic hour before bed, and ask him about his favorite movie — the one where he's memorized every damned song and character and plot point. Take notes.

Follow the exact same protocol the following day, but this time give him a slice of cake beforehand (a nice big one, stacked with icing). Now try to interpret the gibberish-filled meltdown that follows. You don’t even need to compare notes, do you?

This is the brain on sugar.

You’ll hear parents and grandparents drop the term “sugared up” often enough — as if the effects of sugar were merely the equivalent of a cup of coffee. A line of coke is more like it. The brain on sugar, exaggerated for the insane metabolism in the small bodies of kids, is a mind-altering drug.

Study after study shows that high-sugar diets can significantly impair memory skills after just one week; the stuff is as addictive as cocaine (in one study, rats actually chose sugar over cocaine); and it's particularly detrimental for the hippocampus — you know, the region that is key to forming memories, connecting emotions and senses, and organizing information.  

We know sugar isn't a health food, and it's becoming clearer that it's the number one vice of children. How did we get here? There's plenty of blame to go around. Just look to the recent rash of exposés showing that the industry has been, for decades, manipulating the science behind the link of sugar and poor health — leading to ever-increasing amounts of sugar in products without oversight. The marketing for sugar has been aimed squarely at kids for decades too, adding fuel to the fire of their natural craving. Add to that the fact that companies continue to make each product more addictively sweet than the last, and it becomes insanely difficult to avoid extra sucrose, fructose, and glucose in everything from bagels to apple juice. 

Then there's our own terrible choices. No one forced you to give your kid (or yourself) a mid-day candy bar or to make dessert something that happens each night — or even every meal. We may be only starting to get a sense of the real impacts that sugar has on our health — and, yes, cancer might be one of them — but we know for sure that there's no real defense for eating as much as we do. 

Think of the current nutritional landscape as the disco era for drugs. We've had our fun. Now it's time to stop, move on, and ask ourselves, "What were we thinking?"