The surprising connection between drinking pop and violence


Boston researchers have recently linked carbonated non-diet drinks with an increased risk of violent behaviour in adolescents. Sounds pretty far-fetched, doesn’t it? We do know that these sugar-sweetened beverages are associated with a host of health ills including a higher risk of weight gain and diabetes to name a few, but violent behaviour – is this really feasible? Before you say “give me a break,” if you delve into the details of the study and combine it with other research, it can make sense. The findings may also apply to other dietary habits such as snacking and meal choices.

The scientists liken their findings to what’s known as the ‘Twinkie Defense’. The name was coined back in 1979 when a defendant in a murder trial argued that he had diminished capacity partially due to his recent dietary changes from a healthy diet to one full of junk food and cola drinks. Since that time, research has investigated the impact of sugary foods on behaviour.

In the research, published online in the journal, Injury Prevention, scientists surveyed more than 1,800 students from 22 public high schools in Boston about their consumption of sugar-sweetened soft drinks over a one week period and whether they had carried a weapon or were involved in physical violence with a peer or a sibling.

Those who drank five or more servings (355 ml or 12 ounces), classified as high consumption, were significantly more likely to have been involved in violent incidents in addition to carrying a gun or knife in the previous year. The researchers also looked at factors such as alcohol use and smoking but even after taking these matters into account, the number of soft drinks consumed was still connected to the likelihood of having behavioural issues.

The scientists speculate that the caffeine in addition to sugar in the soft drinks may play a role here.

If you’re reading this and thinking that since you drink regular pop and have never entertained the thought of carrying a weapon, that this is a real stretch, read on.

There are many people who believe that sugar and hyperactivity in kids go hand in hand, but it’s not as straightforward as you might think. In some cases, it’s the situation – a birthday party, for example, with lots of excitement – that can bring forth the somewhat overly energetic behaviour in kids.

Or it could be the impact of consuming sugar, or other quickly digested carbohydrates, on blood sugar readings. Having sugar on its own can lead to a rollercoaster effect on blood sugar readings – first a sharp rise and then a sudden drop to sometimes lower levels than before the sugar was consumed. And it’s this low blood sugar that may be responsible for behavioural changes such as aggression, hyperactivity, anger or irritability.

Just how many times have you witnessed a hungry child become very irritable or moody?

Research shows that in the younger set – children and teens – low blood sugar levels are frequently accompanied by exaggerated stress hormone (adrenaline) readings. Some adults also experience this as well. In less severe forms, it’s simply described as being cranky. Add in the caffeine that may be found in some soft drinks and adrenaline levels can spike even further.

It’s interesting to note that Health Canada now allows caffeine to be added to non-cola soft drinks – an issue I’ve written about previously.

When circumstances combine as they may have in the study, possible low blood sugar readings may have a very different outcome than just being a little short tempered. How many kids, teens in particular, skip meals during the day and simply opt for high carb choices that may lead to swings in blood sugar readings? A snack of chips and a cola is a perfect example.

In the study, over one third of the subjects did not have dinner with their families even once in the preceding seven days. The absence of family meals is also a risk factor for behavioural issues. And if the teens aren’t having family meals, what are they eating? You can bet that a balance of nutrients isn’t on the menu. If they were eating healthy choices, while a sugary beverage may not be the best selection, the drink together with the meal may have a different impact on behaviour and mood.

The significance of research such as this, though, points to much more than the link between a teen’s beverage choice and violence. It demonstrates that balanced eats can play a role in peace and harmony in the home and relationships with peers for youngsters and even some adults. Besides decreased productivity, skipping breakfast or just having a sugary cereal or glass of juice to start the day off may lead to poor moods. And what about the picky eaters who return home toting the lunch they left with in the morning?

To get off the blood sugar rollercoaster, be sure to include protein-rich options during meals and snack time. And keep in mind that a little goes a long way – an egg, an ounce or two of lower-fat cheese, cottage cheese, meat, poultry, fish or soy at meals. Grab a handful of nuts or add some yogurt instead of just fruit or crackers at snack time.

It might just help brighten the mood.

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Categories: Children's Health

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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