GI and Learning Difficulty

Author: Leigh-Anne Silber
Sweet tasting sugar has the amazing ability to get the kids bouncing off the walls. All that sugar also has a dramatic effect on the brain. So it’s no wonder that in daily life overdoing the sweet stuff affects your child’s behaviour, concentration and working ability. However, nothing is more important than sugar for your child’s brain – well it is not actually the white granules of sugar that our brain uses, but blood sugar, more specifically glucose, that the fuels the brain. So without an adequate supply we can’t think properly. We get these sugars from the foods we eat, specifically carbohydrate rich foods. The trick however lies in keeping the supply of sugar to our blood stream even and balanced.
Too much at one time get the kids bouncing off the walls and a rapid lowering of blood sugar thereafter. Too little and your child could experience symptoms like fatigue, irritability, dizziness, aggression and lack of concentration. So for your child to think clearly and behave rationally, it’s vital that their blood glucose supply remains even.

Over the years researchers have investigated different kinds of carbohydrates and their effect on blood sugar levels. It was discovered that foods that release sugar into the blood stream at a rapid rate causes an immediate increase in blood sugar and thereafter hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). These foods where named high glycemic foods (high-GI). Carbohydrate rich foods that released sugar into the blood stream at a slow consistent rate where named low glycemic foods (low-GI). It has been suggested that children with behavioural and learning disorders could greatly benefit from avoiding high-GI foods (such as refined breads, most cereals, cold drinks, energy drinks and sweets that are high in glucose).

What is the relationship between low blood sugar levels and learning difficulties?
Many children with learning difficulties crave high-GI foods. These foods cause a rapid rise in blood glucose causing the pancreas to pour out insulin in an attempt to bring blood glucose to a normal level. In many people and some children that suffer from learning disabilities, the body pours out too much insulin, causing too much glucose to be drawn out of the blood and the blood-sugar level then falls below normal. The result is a hypoglycemic attack with the symptoms mentioned above, specifically important is the absolute lack of ability to concentrate.

Lets take breakfast for example. When a high-GI breakfast is eaten (such as Rice Crispies), a hypoglycemic attack may occur 1-1 ½ hours later, which is still before first break and at a time when the brain should still be receiving a steady supply of energy from the food that was eaten 2-3 hours before, as would have been the case if a low GI breakfast was eaten. If high-GI foods are again eaten at break (example Coke with white bread sandwich with Jam), the same scenario will repeat itself again. Thus it is understandable that the child would find it difficult to concentrate. The brain fuel is constantly undergoing huge swings and this is not conducive to thinking, acting or behaving in a normal way. And the cycle just keeps on repeating itself.

Low-GI eating is easy!

If low-GI foods are eaten most of the time and especially for breakfast the brain will receive a steady supply of energy from the food. By keeping blood sugar levels stable concentration should improve and behaviour should be more consistent.


Bokomo fibre plus cereal
Whole-wheat apple bake and original pronutro
Nature’s source Mixed Berry Muesli, Apple and cinnamon, Orange and spices
Kellogg’s All Bran fruitful with low fat milk
Eatright Muesli*
Fine Form Muesli
Oats with yogurt or milk
Hi-Fibre bran

All cereals to be eaten with yogurt or milk

Other Low GI breakfast ideas
Fruit (apple, pears, oranges and yogurt)
Scrambled egg/boiled/poached egg with a slice of low GI bread

1. Enjoy low-GI fruits, vegetables, low fat milk or lean proteins with meals
2. Choose 1 low-GI food per meal
3. Plan menus around low GI food choices such as sweet potato, lentils, low GI-breads, couscous
4. Exchange high-GI breads cereals and pasta’s for low-GI one’s.

Remember using the GI is only part of the equation for balancing blood sugar levels and providing sufficient fuel for the brain, a healthy balanced diet, limited intake of preservatives and additives and adequate micro-nutrient intake is also essential.

*P.S. if you are pressed for time or don’t have the time or energy to cook low-GI meals, EATrite has a range of frozen foods all based on the principles of low GI cooking and portioned to ensure the correct glycemic load. And most importantly the meals are delicious. They are now available at selected Dis-chem stores in Gauteng.

Holford, P & Colson D. Optimum Nutrition for your child’s mind. Piatkus. 2006
Delport, L & Steenkamp G. Eating for sustained energy. Tafelberg publishers. 2000