How to Handle Your Child's Sugar Rush

Laughing boy eating cupcake

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Picture this: You're at a birthday party and your child is gorging on candy and sweets. Soon, they're bouncing off the walls and laughing hysterically. Fast forward 20 minutes, and they're verging on a meltdown. If you've been in that scenario, you may have assumed sugar was the culprit for the extreme behavior.

Many kids seem to experience a "sugar rush" after eating cake, cookies, or candy. They become energized for a short time and then quickly crash, feeling tired, irritable, and often hungry. Naturally, parents yearn for ways to control hyperactive behavior when sweets are served and curb the health consequences of eating too much sugar.

We spoke to a pediatrician and a pediatric nutritionist to explore how sugar affects kids. Learn ideas for letting your child satisfy their sweet tooth from time to time without experiencing energy crashes and mood swings.

What Is a Sugar Rush?

Many experts say the idea of a "sugar rush" is a myth. There's little solid research showing that eating sugar directly causes hyperactivity or mood swings.

You might wonder then why so many parents believe that sugar is the culprit for their children's erratic behavior. According to Florencia Segura, MD, of Einstein Pediatrics in Virginia, there may be some relation between sugar consumption and energy levels, especially in children who haven't eaten in a while before gobbling up sweets.

"Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that breaks down fast in our digestive tract and reaches our bloodstream quickly, so if we are hungry and feeling low on energy, our brain and body will feel a burst of energy shortly after eating sugar," says Dr. Segura. "The breakdown of sugar soon after can leave some kids hungry, tired, or moody, but really, it's an indication that their bodies need more food—hopefully, something with more protein or fat."

Yaffi Lvova, RDN, owner of Baby Bloom Nutrition, thinks that for some kids, the sheer excitement of being served sweets contributes to hyperactive behavior. "The child who is usually denied sweets will feel like it's a party when they finally get them," says Lvova.

The Effects of Sugar

Even if science has not linked sugar directly to hyperactive behavior, sugar can contribute to energy dips and health problems. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foods with added sugar should make up no more than 10% of daily calories in anyone ages 2 and older. For children 2 years and younger, added sugars should be avoided altogether, according to the CDC.

The added sugars in kids' diets usually come from sugary drinks (soda, juice), sweetened baked goods (muffins, cookies, cake), and sometimes, candy. If these are prime staples in your child's diet, you may want to consider limiting how much and how often you allow them.

Of course, if your child has a sweet tooth, limiting sugar may not be easy. But knowing how sugary foods can negatively impact children's short-term behavior and long-term health can help motivate you to make some easy changes to your kids' diet.

Short-Term Effects

The short-term effects of eating too much sugar can be just what you might picture a "sugar rush" to look like: an intense burst of energy followed by a quick crash and a cranky mood. "Because sugar is a simple carbohydrate that breaks down quickly, sugar on its own can cause children to become hungry quickly again, leaving them tired and moody, says Dr. Segura.

For some kids, excessive sweets can make them feel temporarily sick. "Sugar on an empty stomach can sometimes cause stomachaches," says Dr. Segura.

Long-Term Effects

Too much sugar can lead to serious health issues. "Calories from sugar can add up quickly and lead to weight gain," says Dr. Segura. "Weight gain in children can contribute to hypertension, dyslipidemia, insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, and type 2 diabetes mellitus." (If you have a child with type 1 diabetes, sweets can cause unsafe blood sugar spikes, so it's crucial to work with a doctor on a special diet plan.)

For most kids, it may be best to not prohibit sugar completely. Some experts find that many children with no access to treats overindulge when given the opportunity. "The long-term effect of sugar denial is likely an intense preference for sweets as soon as they can buy their own groceries," says Lvova. "What parents deny during childhood is exactly what their kids will seek out."

Eating for Stable Energy

It seems, then, that the best way to control children's sugar intake is to allow them to eat sweets in moderation. It's also important to pair sugar with nutritious foods for kids to maintain stable energy levels.

"The best way to mitigate the effects of sugar is to mix either a complex carbohydrate, fat, or protein alongside the sugar," says Dr. Segura. "The sugar-related bursts and dips are barely perceptible because fat and protein take longer to digest and metabolize, giving you a steady energy source." Fiber-rich granola bars, yogurt, or a glass of milk alongside a cookie are sweet and satisfying snacks.

While limiting sugar intake, Lvova also recommends lessening the allure of sweets by sharing them with your child from time to time. "Enjoying them together encourages food-neutrality—the idea that food is food and doesn't require a party," she says. One way to enjoy treats together as a family in a more health-conscious way is to bake together, swapping out added sugar for natural sweeteners like honey or applesauce in recipes.

A Word from Verywell

Although there is no evidence to show that sugar causes hyperactivity in kids, eating too much isn't great for children's moods, behavior, or overall health. However, taking fun treats like birthday cake or Halloween candy off the table completely can backfire. Rather than forbidding sugary foods, try reserving them for special occasions and pairing them with protein, fat, or complex carbohydrates. Kids can enjoy the sweet things in life while keeping energy levels steady.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mantantzis K., Schlaghecken F., Sünram-Lea S.I. & Maylor E.A. Sugar rush or sugar crash? A meta-analysis of carbohydrate effects on mood. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 101, 45-67 (2019). doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.03.016

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Get the Facts: Added Sugars. Reviewed November 28, 2021.

By May Sofi
May Sofi Brennan is a bilingual speech-language pathologist specializing in early childhood. She has extensive experience working with children ages 0-5 and their families, with a focus on coaching caregivers on ways to encourage and promote language development. She is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Bustle and FabFitFun.