Does Sugar Really Cause Hyperactivity in Children?

Does too much sugar lead to hyperactivity in kids?
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You likely hear it all the time. A parent who says, “Their grandmother got them all hyped up on sugar and then sent them home!” or “Don’t give them too much sugar before bed or they won’t ever go to sleep!”

When you hear remarks like these as a parent you're probably wondering what the truth is. Does sugar really cause hyperactivity in children?

Historical Link Between Sugar and Hyperactivity

The idea that sugar causes hyperactivity in kids stems from a popular diet in the 1970s created by a pediatrician named Dr. Benjamin Feingold.

The "Feingold Diet" was an elimination diet that did not permit any artificial coloring, artificial flavoring, and other additives common in processed food. Feingold believed that these additives contributed to hyperactivity as well as allergies.

Although he did not specifically suggest that parents eliminate sugar from the family's diet, the idea that any type of food additive could be linked to behavior problems spread quickly.

Recent Research Studies

Claims that cookies and cupcakes lead to wild behavior in kids have encouraged debate in the medical community. Fortunately, that debate has led to several in-depth research studies.

In 1995, the Journal of the American Medical Association reviewed the various studies on the subject and concluded that sugar does not lead to hyperactivity in children.

However, the researchers did acknowledge that there could be a chance that sugar may have a minor effect on a small number of children.

Parental Expectations of Sugar

There has also been speculation that it's not the sugar in certain foods that causes hyperactivity. Some researchers have theorized that it could be a parent's belief that sugar causes hyperactivity that inadvertently encourages their kids to become more active after eating a sweet treat.

Parents may simply report increased hyperactivity after their kids consume sugar because they're on the lookout for hyperactivity. They might say things to their kids like, "You'll be bouncing off the walls when you're done eating all that candy," which spurs on the child's behavior.

This effect was demonstrated by a 1994 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. For the study, the researchers told a group of mothers of 5- to 7-year-old boys that their children would receive high doses of sugar.

The mothers were then asked to rate their child's behavior. The majority of the mothers in the study rated their child's behavior as more being hyperactive, even though half of the children were not given any sugar at all.

The researchers concluded that parents who believe sugar impacts their child's behavior will think their children have become more hyperactive after consuming sugary foods.

What Parents Need to Know About Sugar

An ice cream sundae or a piece of cake isn't likely to skyrocket your child's energy level, but a parent's statements about food can affect their child's relationship with food and their body.

While there is a lot of fear around sugar perpetuated by diet culture, sweets can fit into a healthy eating pattern for kids (and their parents!)

Here are some tips for nurturing a healthy relationship with food, specifically sweets:

  • Avoid labeling food as being "Good" or "Bad. Remind yourself that food does not carry or create moral value (i.e., you don't become good or bad by eating or avoiding certain foods).
  • Decide how you'd like to serve sweets at home. In addition to which treats you include, you also want to decide how often and how much. These don't have to be hard and fast rules. Let them be a general plan for sweets that works for your family.
  • Consider serving sweets with a meal. This way, kids can eat their portion of sweets whenever they want in relation to the meal. This practice is also a good exercise in building trust that all foods are morally equal.
  • Offer kids meals and snacks on a dependable schedule. This helps them learn to trust that they know when their next opportunity to eat will be.
  • Offer a meal or snack before going to a party or event where sweets will be served. Doing so ensures that your kids won't be overly hungry when making food choices at the party. They'll have the chance to listen to what sounds good to eat and to stop eating when they're full.
  • Do not talk about the health value of sweet foods compared to other foods and don't discuss dieting, fad diets, or other aspects of diet culture in front of your children. If kids ask for more sweets beyond the portion you've provided, simply say, "That's it for today, but we can have more tomorrow (or whenever you plan to have them next)."
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Article Sources
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  1. Feingold, BF. "The Role of Diet in Behaviour" (PDF). Ecology of Disease. 1982. (2/3): 153–65. PMID 6090095.

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