How to improve your child’s behavior with blood sugar control

How to improve your child’s behavior with blood sugar control

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Are you struggling with behavioral issues in your child? Have you ever wondered if blood sugar control is affecting them?

So often I see a parent come in with a child who needs behavior modification – and the schools of course want something to be done about it. I get it! Schools are over populated, with not nearly enough teachers to students. Their job has become a large mix of behavior management and teaching.

What I don’t get, is the lack of awareness of how much this behavior modification can be influenced by dietary choices. When I talk with parents, they describe to me how different their child acts when they consume sugar-laden foods such as cake, cookies, candy, ice cream or cupcakes. But what about when your child is eating low levels of sugar in the diet constantly?

A diet filled with bagels, sandwiches, hot pockets, chicken nuggets, packaged foods, white potatoes, processed condiments such as ketchup and not to mention sugary drinks like soda and fruit juice, all have your child constantly wound up at a level right below the extreme hyperactivity you may witness after a piece of cake. Sometimes it isn’t as drastic of a change in their behavior to see them “off the wall” after consumption of these foods. However you may notice that your child doesn’t always listen even after multiple tries, or is quick to get frustrated or angry, lacks the ability to sit still like other children, or just struggles with remembering tasks.

Rather than just being offered medication solutions or behavioral training alone, kids (and more importantly) their parents should also be given the knowledge and know how of what to do with a child’s diet. After all – you are what you eat. So, if you child mostly consumes processed carbohydrates in the form of breads, pastas, bagels, cookies and crackers, and eats little to no vegetables, that is a recipe for unstable blood sugar.

What happens when children need behavior modification but are not able to get the whole body help they need? Most children with behavior issues are managed as well as they can be, but you see this is only a band-aid to a problem. If left unresolved, behavioral issues can develop into deeper and bigger problems as children grow up. There is a great read by Barbara Reid Stitt: Food and Behavior. As a probation officer, she studied what happens to the behavior of individuals when their diet is changed, and the results are remarkable.

In this article you will learn:

  • Why it is important keep your child’s blood sugar in balance.
  • Why sugar and processed carbohydrates are really the enemy.
  • How getting your child to eat vegetables is not as hard as you think it may be (hint: consistency is key).
  • Why helping your child eat healthy is a serious health service you are helping them establish from a young age.

All of this translates into a healthier life: less diabetes and cardiovascular disease down the road. Plus- less cavities and a healthier immune system today!

Why Balancing Blood Sugar is Key to Behavior Management

Unstable blood sugar leads to a whole host of issues, including inability to focus and concentrate, increased anxiety and overwhelm, inability to sit still, digestive issues including constipation or diarrhea, a weakened immune system and so much more.

Don’t you want to give your little one the best chances for having the nutrients he or she needs to pay attention in school, learn and grow? I know you do!

If your child experiences any of the following symptoms, it is often a cause for investigation into your child’s diet.

Symptoms of low blood sugar that coincide with behavior modification symptoms:

  • Difficulty listening
  • Inability to focus or stay on task
  • Easily distracted
  • Irritable
  • Quick to frustration, and sometimes hard to calm down
  • Unexpected anger and/or lashing out
  • Restless, can’t sit still

Having the symptoms listed above can be tied directly back to fluctuating blood sugar.

Stress Hormones

When blood sugar drops, the body first releases adrenaline and then alerts the adrenals to release cortisol, the stress hormone.

Cortisol will tell the body to start breaking down stored glucose and will stimulate insulin from the pancreas to help the body drop the glucose off around the body. Key areas that are affected by blood sugar fluctuations are the brain, heart and muscles.

While the body has this mechanism set up to make sure that blood sugar stores can be mobilized, this is not the best use of helping to stabilize blood sugar. Every time your child’s body requires cortisol to be released, there are other issues that may occur from your child being under a chronic state of stress.

Now it is one thing if your child has to run from the metaphorical bear, but constant release of cortisol puts your child’s body under stress regularly. This is not good for so many reasons. When cortisol is excessively released, it can cloud focus and memory, make retention difficult and can also increase heart rate and breathing unnecessarily. The best way to prevent this from happening is to make sure your child’s blood sugar has the best chance of remaining stable form meal to meal.

This is why blood sugar fluctuations can have such a large impact on your child’s ability to focus, sit still, listen and follow directions. If your child experiences any of these symptoms or the ones listed below, chances are, your child is sensitive to blood sugar fluctuations, and you will want to use the Strategies: What to Do With Diet below to help bring blood sugar into balance, and help your child’s behavior.

You can get started today on preventing sugar problems by severely restricting refined carbohydrates—candy, cookies, sweet rolls, donuts, cake, pie, ice cream, jelly, jam, soda, etc

Diet As a No Brainer

The reason why diet, as well as, evaluation of sugar intake is important to behavior modification, is because intake of refined sugar will lead to an imbalance in your child’s blood sugar. A quick spike in blood sugar from refined and processed foods leads to a quick burst of energy and a rapid decline in energy. This often translates into hyperactivity, attention issues, acting out, and then a crash or meltdown (or multiple melt downs).

Refined Sugar Has No Nutritive Value

Dr. David Reuben, author of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Nutrition says, “white refined sugar-is not a food. It is a pure chemical extracted from plant sources, purer in fact than cocaine, which it resembles in many ways. Its true name is sucrose and its chemical formula is C12H22O11. It has 12 carbon atoms, 22 hydrogen atoms, 11 oxygen atoms, and absolutely nothing else to offer.”

Other sources of refined sugar include: high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, glucose, fructose, dextrose, and maltose. These are highly refined, and like table sugar above, contain absolutely no nutritive value.

Processed sugars may include some of the more “natural” sugars: maple syrup, honey, raw sugar cane, sucanat, brown rice syrup, etc. While these sugars are generally healthier than the refined ones listed above, as they do contain other nutrients in them other than purified glucose, fructose or sucrose, they are still sugar! And your body will use them as sugar.

Technically speaking if you want to avoid all “processed” sugars, that would be pretty much everything, as all sugar needs to be processed to be removed from it’s original source.

Your best bet is to avoid all refined sugars and allow some minimally natural processed sugars (raw honey, maple syrup, sucanat) to come into the diet via a “treat” on a monthly basis.

A note about agave: I am not a huge fan of this “natural” sugar. It is predominantly fructose.

Say No To Fructose (Mostly) + A Few Other Reasons To Give Up Sugar Beyond Behavior

Fructose is absorbed by the intestines through an “open door,” which means it is only regulated by how much you consume, rather than how much the body needs (like glucose). In addition, fructose goes straight to the liver (unlike glucose) to be metabolized. Excess fructose can lead to fatty liver, which can be seen in liver enzymes: when ALT goes over about 17-20. This is still considered normal, however, when ALT gradually goes up into the 20’s and beyond, your liver is not working at full capacity, and some of that may be due to your liver cells storing this excess fructose as fat. Fat storage from sugar in your diet, not from fat!

Fructose also does not stimulate insulin secretion the way glucose does, so your body doesn’t even know you are consuming all these calories in the form of fructose. And we wonder why people are on average 25lbs heavier than 30 years ago!! That is a decent amount of weight for the human population to jump to, in just 30 years. Fructose is definitely one of the culprits, going in to the body and not being picked up by our hunger/satiety hormones. So, in essence we are just consuming “free” calories that are making you fat and ill.

Dr Robert Lustig, MD has been studying the obesity epidemic for years with children at UCSF. What he has noticed is that the growth rate of obesity has been directly in line with the growth of our consumption of fructose, especially high fructose corn syrup. And surprisingly (or not really, if you actually know biochemistry), obesity has increased in light of a decrease in the consumption of fat!!

Image from Sugar: The Bitter Truth 

Blood sugar child behavior

Less fat in the diet leads to MORE obesity!

It is best to stay away from ALL sources of fructose on labels (agave, high fructose corn syrup, fructose from fruit), except when you eat WHOLE fruit. A piece of whole fruit is really the only place that fructose should come into the body!

And of course, we can’t forget cavities. Sucrose (table sugar)- has been linked with increased cavities in children (not surprisingly). A study done in healthy Finnish children found that the manifestation of dental caries at 6 years of age was associated with children who started eating 2 or more servings of sweets a week starting at 3 years of age.

Strategies: What To Do With Diet

For breakfast, children do best with some protein to help them concentrate at school. Try: eggs, natural breakfast meats, oats and nuts, quinoa and nuts or seeds, a fruit and greens protein smoothie with whey, hemp or brown rice protein.

Snack time should also be filled with protein and vegetables to stabilize blood sugar over a long period of time. Try: any of the following proteins with your child’s favorite cut up veggies. Protein: natural string cheese, hummus, black bean dip, avocado or guacamole, almond butter, whole or 2% natural yogurt, sliced chicken or turkey. Veggies: carrots, cucumbers, celery, tomatoes, broccoli, snap peas, green beans, cauliflower, zucchini, yellow squash etc. Refer to the list below for how to get your children to eat vegetables.  Check out Dr. Corinne Harpster’s article on Vegetable and Protein Containing Snack and Lunch Ideas


You have to give up Soda. For so many reasons.

  • First off there are roughly 10 teaspoons of sugar in the average 12-ounce soda can. That is A LOT of sugar to consume in the form of fructose often, that your body has to figure out what to do with.
  • Phosphoric acid in soda can antagonize calcium in the bone, leading to less calcium to create strong bones. When your child is growing, this is when you want to help support healthy bone formation, because you only have until about age 33 to improve your bone health. Then each year after that, your bones slowly degrade. No wonder why osteoporosis, falls and fractures are so common. Too much soda!

READ LABELS- this is a must! You can’t assume because a product says natural or even organic that it is good for you. You need to read what is being put in the food.

  • Limit prepared and packaged foods- these often contain hidden sugars and are highly processed, even many natural and gluten free packaged foods are processed and purified.

And The Best For Last: 18 Ways to Get Your Children to Eat Vegetables!

1. Presentation–make it look fun. Offer veggies with healthy dips. Mix veggies in foods kids will eat (omelettes, soups, casseroles/one pot meals).

2. Don’t force kids to eat foods they don’t want to, but encourage them to try new foods–have a 2-bite rule (one for texture, one for taste) in our house.

3. Cut in fun shapes or arrange into picture on plate. Tell a story while they are eating.

4. You can always instate a “charge (your kids name)”…. More rice will cost you 2 pieces of broccoli.

5. Get creative. What are your kid’s favorite animals? Maybe a bunny! Well bunnies eat carrots and lettuce. Let them even try eating off a plate on the floor like a bunny. Dinnertime can be enjoyable!

6. Getting to pick out one specialty vegetable at the market can introduce a lot of new foods into your house.

7. Depending on the age you can encourage them to be open to trying them different ways. They may like tomatoes, but not tomato sauce. Or maybe they like sweet potatoes sticks but not mashed sweet potatoes.

8. If they are old enough, putting food on a skewer or kabob stick may make it more appealing.

9. Have a plate of cut up veggies available whenever kids are really hungry such as right before dinner. They will be much less particular and start grazing without even realizing it.

10. Hide vegetables in things: shredded zucchini in breads, pureed veggies in soups/dips/smoothies.

11. Shred/chop veggies teeny tiny in the cuisinart, and then put them in hamburgers. Onions, parsley, zucchini, carrots, all went into hamburger, very deliciously I might add. Start at 25% veggie, increase to 50% overtime.

12. If you offer any screen time- offer veggies and press play if they are eating them and pause if they are not.

13. Green pancakes: whole head of spinach blended will with liquid ingredients of any recipe. Very green but yummy!

14. Play pretend; Do your kids love fairies? Imagine how the different vegetables are used by fairies – ie broccoli as trees, mushrooms as houses, carrots can be poles, peas to play ball, etc. They come up with the use and the fairies can only use them after its been eaten.

15. Grow it! Kids will often eat what they grow!

16. Give kids the choice, BUT remember the choices must be equivalent. Do you want broccoli or green beans, tomato or cucumber? Whatever two or three veggies you want to offer them, let them feel as though they have the last say. This is not the same as would you like broccoli or mac and cheese!

17. Start early- when you can, offer vegetables to infants and toddlers. Healthy routines at this age will surely stick.

18. And last but not least, don’t give up. Be creative, roll with the ups and downs and always be there when they are ready to try something new!

Remember what works one day may not work another.

You can take back control of your and your family’s health, one meal at a time!

In health,

Dr. Maggie


Dr. Maggie Luther

Dr. Maggie received a Naturopathic Medical Degree (ND) from Bastyr University as well as Advanced Herbal Training from Blazing Star Herbal School. From a young age Dr. Maggie has been in love with the natural world, while at the same time questioning everything having to do with making the world a healthier place. As a thought leader in the wellness field Dr Maggie knows the new frontier in medicine is better focused on health and healing rather than simply treating symptoms, natural or otherwise. Wellness is about restoring health to every organ system in the body. This strengthens the body and mind, creating a resiliency from which health can flourish. From there, daily health promoting habits allow the body and mind to be able to weather the inevitable ups and downs life throws our way. Having healed many conditions in herself, Dr. Maggie knows firsthand that healing and the maintenance of health is not about reaching a final destination, but is a journey where every day you get to learn what contributes to your health. This is the foundation of preventative medicine: when it comes to our health we need to be living a proactive life, rather than a reactive lifestyle. Only then will we see true healing occur on every level.


  • Avatar
    May 15, 2023 at 8:02 am

    Hello, what can you advise for when a child comes home from a party and has consumed the sugar? I keep him almost sugar free at home but after a party he goes bananas. Rudeness and non compliance mainly…. Such a a shame because hes such a well behaved kid. hes almost 12. I try to give him lots of water when he gets home but any other quick fix ideas would be welcome. Thanks

    • Erika Krumbeck, ND
      Erika Krumbeck, ND
      May 16, 2023 at 1:13 pm

      Hi Vicky,

      I highly recommend a high-protein meal before the party. Giving him a full dinner (or lunch) with plenty of protein and healthy fats makes a huge difference. I also recommend plenty of fresh fruit and veggies before the party, especially vitamin C-containing fruits.

      High sugar snacks can lead to a blood sugar “crash” usually about 90 minutes after the sugary food. Be ready for it with some fruit or other natural sugars, and then follow it up with some protein (like nut butters).

      Hope this helps!

  • Avatar
    Nicole Amacas
    March 2, 2022 at 10:11 am

    Would like to have a consultation for my son bc the school wants me to give tbem a diagnosis as to what is causing his lack of focus, rushing for September class placement and offcourse I am not taking him to conventional doctors. Please advise. My tel number is 917 771 7771 my name is mrs. Amaxas.

    • Avatar
      Dr Fleming
      April 21, 2022 at 2:44 pm

      How old is your son?

  • Avatar
    Amanda Marie Lillard
    August 18, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    How do you get your child to comply? Mine is 11, has ADHD and Autism. I have know for a long time that sugar affects my mood and ability to self-regulate. He is in denial that sugar cause him problems, but wow does it.

    • Erika Krumbeck
      Erika Krumbeck
      August 29, 2017 at 3:38 pm


      That is a very challenging age! The best way to go about it is to completely get rid of sugar at home and be a good model for him of how to eat well. This doesn’t mean he won’t get his hands on snacks, of course, but it usually helps a lot. Sometimes I’ll set a time limit for kids – 2 weeks to 1 month where they commit to no sugar, and then get a large reward at the end (tickets to the movies, a new toy, a new computer game, etc). After this “reset” time kids will often find sugary foods taste too sweet and will limit themselves a little better.

      Dr. K

  • Avatar
    March 17, 2017 at 8:47 am

    THANK YOU!!! My 14 year old daughter was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, however the therapy and medications we were given did nothing to help and it was suggested that she be tested for bi-polar disorder as her moods were unbeleivable! It was like living with Jekyl and Hyde. She was loud, aggressive, and at times, abusive. It was reaching the point where we didn’t know where to turn and by sheer chance (or good luck) she had one of her ‘episodes’ in front of a nutritionist who straight away told me to cut sugar out of her diet. She told me that her episodes were not that of a 14 year old girl, she was not ‘at that age’ and she most certainly wasn’t bi-polar. Me and my ex-husband put aside our differences to work out a meal plan that gave her healthy nutritious foods, not that we fed her soda, chocolate or lollies, but we later found out she was begging them from friends, and we informed her teachers that she was not to be given sugar ladden foods like chocolate, soda, ice cream or lollies. Within only a few days, she was a completely different child. I knew sugar wasn’t good for you in large amounts, but never did I think it was responsible for the Jekyl and Hyde that I was living with.
    All the money we spent on therapy, tests, medication and it was something as simple as sugar causing all our problems. Can’t thank you enough for giving me back the daughter I know and love and not the monster that we were forced to endure.

    • Avatar
      April 17, 2017 at 2:12 am

      What Nathalie described, sounds exactly like my 10 year-old daughter. She has ADHD and is taking Concerta, which really helps. However, if she has anything that has refined sugar (soda, chocolate, fruit snacks, etc…) she is off the wall. Moody, angry, aggressive, loud and frequently abusive. When she doesn’t have any of the sugar additives, she is normal or as normal as can be. It is amazing how one substance can greatly affect a child. Natural sugar (fruit sugar and milk sugar, honey), is a different story. She can regulate herself with these. I have cut out refined sugar as much as I can, and it makes a HUGE difference!

  • Avatar
    Marilynne Stout
    March 10, 2017 at 6:57 pm

    I’ve been saying for so long. People should try this before they describe medicine.

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    February 3, 2017 at 1:06 pm

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