Sugar is believed to cause problems with learning and mental health | CraigDailyPress.com

Sugar is believed to cause problems with learning and mental health

Children eat 115 percent of recommended daily value at school and MCSD Food Services looks for solutions

Cafeteria workers serve food to students. At Moffat County High School, where salads are on the menu, students still consume an average of 115 percent of their recommended sugar intake from school meals.

— Damage to teeth and waistlines from eating too much sugar are well known and now a growing body of science suggests that too much sugar is also bad for mental health and learning. The large amount of sugar in school food has Moffat County School District Food Services concerned.

Scientists have linked eating sugar to anxiety, schizophrenia, depression, memory loss and learning difficulties.

Rats that eat a diet high in the sugar fructose have slower brains with limited capacity to learn and memory problems, according to University of California Los Angeles scientists whose research was published in the Journal of Physiology in 2012 and whose 2015 focused on the deleterious impact of sugar on brain injuries.

Of particular concern is the amount of sugar being eaten by children with growing brains.

"School meals typically provide 115 percent of a child's sugar content for the day," said Judy Baker, food service director for Moffat County School District.

If scientists are correct, that level of sugar may also impact mental health.

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Regularly bingeing on sugar and skipping meals has been shown to elevate anxiety, according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Physiology and Behavior.

People consuming larger amounts of refined sugar and dairy products suffering from schizophrenia or depression were more likely to suffer longer, according to studies in The British Journal of Psychiatry in 2004.

Researchers in Spain will publish new studies on the link between diet and mental illness later this year.

Baker has started to take a closer look at the sugar content of the school district's meal plan and what she found, especially the breakfast choices available, surprised her.

"I was surprised at the average. I didn't think that we had that much in our program, but I don't track it. I looked at the sugar in yogurt. It can be surprising how much is in it," she said.

Until recently, sugar wasn't part of the nutritional labels on foods specially manufactured for schools.

"Manufacturers have to step-it-up. When we went to less fat, manufacturers got on-board and they started to change menus to address this area and then did the same when we addressed whole grains," Baker said.

Nutritional choices for children are made by the school district using guidelines from the Colorado Department of Education Office of School Nutrition.

"In food services sugar is not one of the things that they have focused on in the guidelines," Baker said. "I see this coming as a priority. They have been so busy getting fats, trans fats and sodium. Once that is figured out then there will be a bigger focus on sugar including corn syrup."

Baker recalls that such changes to nutritional standards and manufacturing are not always a hit with students.

"The first attempts were not well received, but now they are," Baker said.

Still, Baker isn't waiting for new state guidelines to start looking at ways to reduce the sugar in school meals.

"I have no problem leaning the best product choices to help reduce that sugar load," she said. "We might as well start now, this is where we are headed."

Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com or follow her on Twitter @CDP_Education.