Ask Amelia Nutrition

Does Sugar Really Cause Hyperactivity in Children?

sugar

Millions of moms would say that their kids start bouncing off the walls after eating sweets.  In fact, it’s almost considered common knowledge that sugar causes hyperactivity in children.  But is this really true?

Surprisingly, the answer is no.  The relationship between sugar and hyperactivity has been studied many times, but research has never proven cause and effect in normal children.  So how did this become such a widely accepted myth?

A few reasons:

  1. In 1980, the New York Times published an article called “Sugar causes hyperactivity in children.”  The article was based on a study that monitored kids in a playroom to see how sugar affected their play.  There was a major flaw in the study though: the children were given sugary foods one week after their play was observed.  No sugar was given before observation.  So the “results” were not reliable.  Unfortunately, the New York Times article appeared only a few days after the study came out, so readers had already been influenced by the headline.
  2. Sugary sodas and sweet treats are often given to kids in large, unstructured environments like birthday parties, Halloween parties, or on holidays when kids are already highly excited.  Removing sugar from these environments does not tend to reduce the high energy play.
  3. Most parents cite soda as the item that makes their kids the most hyperactive.  Many of the most common sodas have caffeine, which can cause hyperactivity in children.
  4. Hyperactive kids may be more likely to consume sugary foods, according to research.  This could definitely influence adult expectations that some kids will be more hyper after eating sugar.
  5. Some research has shown that food additives like food colorings do increase hyperactivity in children.  Many sugary foods — candy, soda, birthday cake, frosted cookies, even ice cream — also contain food colorings which could affect behavior.  Read more about that here.

As you can see, it’s no wonder why people believe in the relationship between sugar and hyperactivity.

And though this particular effect is not proven, there certainly are many other good reasons to avoid or reduce sugar, including:

  • Intake of sweetened beverages and even juices is associated with overweight and obesity in children
  • Sugar is a source of “empty calories” – in other words, it provides calories but no real nutrients
  • When kids eat sweets frequently, they may forgo other more nutritious foods because they’re not hungry
  • The more sweet foods kids eat, the more preference they may have for sweet foods, and the more they may shun unsweetened foods (this habit can be reversed over time)

Many moms, doctors, nutritionists, and people in general have strong beliefs about the “dangers” of sugar.  An examination of the research however, (and I should note: research that is NOT funded by the sugar industry) reveals that sugar does not in fact cause hyperactivity in normal child populations.

*image above taken from Balancing Motherhood blog*

17 Comments

  • Reply
    Belinda
    February 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    This is a well balanced article. While the study doesn’t link sugar to hyperactivity, like you stated sugar is linked to weight gain. A diet high in processed foods is a sugary one. This is a reminder that as parents we shape our children’s palettes. On another note, I wanted to tell you thank you for the post about your husband’s weight loss by eating healthy meals that are proportioned correctly. I’m at the high end of my weight for my height and have been wanting to lose just a few pounds. Your post inspired me to make eating healthy a lifestyle instead of a crash diet. Thanks again!

    • Reply
      Amelia
      February 22, 2012 at 6:17 pm

      Thank you for your feedback! I’m so glad you’re finding these articles helpful.

  • Reply
    Kim Tracy Prince
    March 1, 2012 at 9:50 am

    Darn it. Can I just keep lying to my children about why I won’t give them another juice box?

    • Reply
      Amelia
      March 4, 2012 at 8:24 pm

      Ha! If it’s up to me, YES.

  • Reply
    Ciaran
    March 1, 2012 at 11:25 am

    I’m so glad to see this balanced article. I’m sick and tired of parents trying to evangelize my kid’s diets by removing ALL sugar (or fat etc) from birthday celebrations and the like. I’m a big believer of everything in moderation and good quality over cheap. If I’m having a coke, it’s a treat and it’s a Mexican coke with REAL sugar. I’m well aware of the risks of a high sugar diet, but there are risks when you consume too much of many substances, including alcohol, caffeine, salt, fat, and more.

    • Reply
      Amelia
      March 4, 2012 at 8:24 pm

      So true, Ciaran. Everything in moderation is the key! Of course it’s easier said than done, but we can always keep it in mind!

  • Reply
    Deborah Stambler
    March 1, 2012 at 11:34 am

    Your argument is compelling, but I have to say that I’m still not completely convinced. Maybe we should also look at what qualifies as hyperactivity. I’ve been borderline hypoglycemic since childhood and have always been acutely aware of the changes food brings on in my body. I know the lift I get from sugar and the subsequent downslide. I’ve watched this happen with my girls too. Are they technically hyperactive after sugar? Maybe not, but there is a marked change.

    But there are other reasons to avoid sugar which you point out and that’s enough for me. Moderation, right?

    • Reply
      Amelia
      March 4, 2012 at 8:22 pm

      This article isn’t my opinion, it’s just a review of the research. And this is only for “normal” populations so it’s not a study of hypoglycemic kids or adults – thus you may find different results in your own life. As always, moderation will solve most problems – both eating and non-eating!

  • Reply
    Christina Simon
    March 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    I just try to keep sugar in moderation–but not eliminate it totally for myself and my kids.

  • Reply
    Jamie
    March 1, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    Thanks for this post! I have heard this before, and I do agree I don’t think it causes hyperactivity…but on the same not I HATE when my kids ingest refined sugar. – Right after they eat it, no biggy, but once their blood sugar drops they are grumpy.

    I definitely notice a connection with artificial food coloring and hyperactivity, though. That stuff is the spawn of satan 😉

    • Reply
      Amelia
      March 4, 2012 at 8:25 pm

      I can relate to feeling grody when blood sugar drops! When possible eating sugar in the presence of protein and fiber will help with this. Not that I know of any high-protein, high-fiber donuts 🙂

  • Reply
    Caryn B
    March 2, 2012 at 7:55 am

    Excellent article….yes…the myth is that sugar causes the hyperactivity and misbehavior but in my kids, it’s when they’re hungry that they start acting wonky. Great, balanced article…..And we avoid artificial everything as much as possible!

    • Reply
      Amelia
      March 4, 2012 at 8:26 pm

      Me too – I get grumpy quick when my stomach growls!

  • Reply
    Shelby Barone
    March 2, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Great article. Enjoyed reading it. We eliminate as much sugar as possible from our diets just because we feel better without it.

  • Reply
    Vanessa
    March 2, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    I can’t totally stop giving them sugar but I notice they do get sugar highs so who knows.

    • Reply
      Amelia
      March 4, 2012 at 8:17 pm

      I always recommend moderation, for sugar and everything else (except fruits and vegetables – go to town on those!)

  • Reply
    natalie
    March 2, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    I think everyone is different. it does cause hyperactivity in some children. the problem is it is extreme and not everyone needs to do it. but I agree it is important to not over do your childs diet with sugars.. but use it for special moments.. like when I go to the movies eat popcorn and m&m’s with peanuts … but at home less sugary treats! it is all moderation we don’t want to keep it all way from our kids or they will binge when they are not with us and that defeats the purpose

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