It’s near the end of the semester, a time where stress levels are at their highest for students. Usually in times of high stress, people tend to crave things that aren’t always good for them. One of the major things students might gear towards is junk food.
While sugar-filled treats can provide temporary relief in moments of stress, do these treats cause more harm than good when it comes to academic performance?
Last Thursday, a tabling event took place on campus that discussed several initiatives and topics, including whether sugar creates a negative impact on academic performance. This presentation was a part of a larger initiative by a health psychology class (PSY333) taught by Professor Judith Andersen.
Andersen emphasizes the importance of having practical experience, which is why she set up the project in this manner.
“As a professor, my view is that students should be given the opportunity to actively participate in learning, not just always sit in class and listen to lectures,” she says. “Our class is an action-oriented course promoting health behaviour, health activism, and social change. This is a third-year course and for most students, in one to two years they will be out in the real world, competing for jobs and trying to move ahead in new careers.”
A main goal of the presentation, aside from raising awareness on the effects of sugar on academic performance, was to encourage health behaviour changes in the student population at UTM.
“What we’re trying to do with this tabling event is to get students at UTM to commit to a health behaviour change by limiting their sugar intake to within the World Health Organization recommendations for a number of days of their choosing,” says Caitlyn D’Souza, co-organizer of the project and third-year biology specialist.
D’Souza goes on to explain that the well known adage that it takes 21 days to make a habit is false due to scientific studies.
“The average person takes 66 days to form a habit, but even with that, there is large variance between individuals. So at our booth, we’re getting people to set their own sugar goal, and giving them the motivation and tools to help them get there,” she says.
One major problem with excessive sugar intake is that the recipient might be unaware of exactly how much sugar they are consuming. The WHO recommends keeping sugar intake to 25 grams per day.
However, for those who have a lot of sugar, this might seem like too small an amount, so cutting down to at least 50 grams a day is a good starting point.
D’Souza cautions students to start reading the labels of what they eat and drink. Using Tim Horton beverages as an example, she says, “There are 46 grams of sugar in an iced cappuccino, and even a medium double double has 22 grams of sugar.”
There is a reason why some people, after having an iced cappuccino, will feel very jittery and shaky. It’s not a side effect of the caffeine, but the effect of consuming large amounts of sugar in a short time period.
Research has been done on the effects of sugar on the body, but just recently, this topic has emerged again in science.
A 2016 study by Noble and Kanoski found out that the health effects of sugar are not correlated with the effects of obesity. This was done through testing on rats. D’Souza says that it was found that “obese rats fed a high sugar diet had health ramifications over and above obese rats fed a high fat diet“.
Further studies have claimed that the intake of sugar can be related to stress levels in the brain. “A 2016 study by Maniam [and colleagues] found that unstressed rats who consumed sugar had the same brain patterns as stressed out rats […] in the hippocampus. So snacking on a chocolate bar while cramming for a midterm won’t help stress levels or memory,” D’Souza says.
Those junk foods that students might gear towards to relieve stress may not be relieving stress but making it worse. Studies by Hsu et al. (2015) and Noble and Kanoski prove that sugar affects memory because high sugar intake causes inflammation in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is crucial for learning and memory processes.
D’Souza relates this to the pressure UTM students feel towards getting 4.0 GPAs, saying, “Studies like this show that sugar won’t help in achieving those. Another thing we’ve noticed at UTM is that many of the programs are memorization driven. [The group presenting the sugar research] are biology and psychology students, and any advantage memory-wise is important.”
Diet and sugar intake has a startling impact on academic performance and the mental wellness of students. Sugar may seem harmless, but because of the amount people unknowingly consume, it is a silent threat.
If the main goal is to improve academic performance, and as a result the state of your body in times of high stress, it is recommended to change your diet.
“Staying within those sugar guidelines through small snack swaps can help keep one’s memory sharp and boost GPA in the long term, or at least lower stress and help memory enough to ace those midterms in the short term. For example, instead of pop or juice, have fruit-infused water, and instead of a muffin or granola bar in the morning, chia seed pudding or oatmeal is a good option,” says D’Souza.
Other projects similar to this one took place in Kaneff on the same day.
“They are all positive, health behaviour change or awareness projects. They are meant to provide the public with the most current, evidence-based information on health and wellness,” says Andersen.
This year, the projects took a more active initiative by bringing awareness right to the heart of the student population, in person. This was a different approach from last year.
“In the past, students created video projects and posted them,” Andersen says. “Students have the opportunity to be creative and I have even had some student videos picked up by real health campaigns and school wellness programs (Cornell University) for campus-wide initiatives. This shows the power of undergraduate voices in motivating real change in the world.”