As many parents can attest, sugar highs are a reality. The type of food our toddlers eat can affect their behaviour and, at a critical time in their young lives, impact their learning, socialisation and development. It’s important to understand how food does this and therefore consider what we feed our kids and when.

How we get our energy

We derive the bulk of our energy from carbohydrates. These are found in most of the foods we eat – from bread and potatoes to apples and cheese – but there are many different types of carbohydrates, from simple (like sugar) to complex (like starch).

To obtain energy from our food, our body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose. If a carbohydrate is simple, it is much more easily and quickly broken down. On the other hand, more complex carbohydrates take longer to break down and they release their energy more gradually.

These differences can be understood by determining where a food sits on the glycaemic index.

What is the glycaemic index?

The glycaemic index (GI) is a handy tool for rating how quickly or gradually a food will release glucose into your bloodstream. Foods with a high GI typically release their glucose more quickly than foods with a low GI.

The GI of a food is determined not only by the carbohydrate makeup of that food, but also by how it is prepared or processed. For example, apple juice will have a higher GI than a whole apple, because a whole apple takes longer to digest. In this sense, the other nutrients and compounds in a food – like fibre and protein – can help to regulate the digestion of carbohydrates.

The benefits of low GI foods

Because low GI foods release their energy more slowly, they result in a steady supply of energy to your child. Alternatively, high GI foods can lead to spikes in energy (commonly referred to as sugar rushes or sugar highs), which are often followed by large drops in mood, energy and attention. The effects of high GI foods can be somewhat mitigated if they are consumed with low GI foods.

More sustained energy release from low GI foods will result in consistent energy levels without the effects on mood and behaviour that sugar rushes can bring. Toddlers and children who have eaten low GI foods are able to concentrate on problem-solving for longer periods, have a greater energy base for extended play and activity, exhibit fewer extremes in their behaviour and have an easier time interacting with others.

Low GI foods are also generally less processed and therefore have more nutrition value – like dietary fibre and vitamins – than high GI foods.

Choosing low GI foods

  • Choose the unprocessed versions of foods e.g. orange quarters instead of orange juice, or roast potatoes with the skins on instead of hot chips.
  • Choose wholemeal or multigrain versions of bread and pasta, and brown rice instead of white rice.
  • Avoid blending or overly processing foods, and try keeping the skin on vegetables like potatoes and carrots.
  • Use wholemeal flour when baking.
  • Include more legumes in your meals – foods like lentils and beans are high in fibre and protein.

Eating healthily: a time and place for both low and high GI

There is a time and place for both low and high GI foods. For example, as your child gets older and becomes active in sport, you may prepare low GI foods in the lead up to events, and replace these with high GI foods during the events or immediately after. High GI foods are great at replenishing depleted energy stores.

Children and families living with diabetes should speak to a dietitian or GP about the glycaemic index and how understanding it can help to manage the condition.