You know the story: serve a child something sugary and within twenty minutes, they’ll be bouncing off the walls with extra energy. The relationship between sugar and hyperactivity has been described time and time again, and it seems to make sense! But just because it sounds true and has been around for a long time doesn’t mean it’s accurate. You’ll probably be surprised by the real effect that sugar has on kids.
Some people think that hyperactivity from sweets is caused by a quick rise in blood sugar. Others think it happens because blood sugar levels drop a little while after kids have consumed the sweets. A third explanation is that an allergic reaction to sweeteners causes hyperactivity in a large percentage of kids. High blood sugar, low blood sugar, allergies – what’s to blame?
Multiple studies, including ones published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ journal Pediatrics, have studied the effects of sugar on kids. None of these studies found a significant effect of sugar on the kids’ cognitive performance or behavior.
Now, this isn’t to say that those studies completely ruled out the theory that some groups of children experience certain effects from sugar; that would be impossible to measure. But these studies did clearly disprove the notion that kids are more hyperactive, poorly behaved, and have a harder time focusing after they eat sweets.
The (surprising!) role of the parent
Here’s where things get interesting: researchers also tested parental expectations of sugar and hyperactivity. To do this, the researchers told parents that they were giving kids sugar, but they either gave children sugar or gave them a placebo (no sugar). Researchers then asked parents to rate the children’s activity levels.
The results showed that parents expect kids to get more hyperactive and to misbehave after eating sweets, and will rate them as more hyperactive if they think the child just ate sweets – even if the children haven’t eaten anything with sugar! Also, kids whose parents see them as especially sensitive to sugar didn’t appear to experience any significant changes after eating sugar.
To summarize: if you notice Baby acting more hyper after sugar, it’s more likely to be a result of your expectations of how sugar affects kids, not sugar’s actual effects!
Things that really cause hyperactivity
Of course, there are some very real things that make kids act out. Tiredness and hunger are two of the most common things that cause kids to misbehave, or to have a hard time listening to their parents. Changes in the regular routine can also cause kids to act more hyper than usual. It has also been raised as a possibility that food dyes and additives can affect children who have ADHD.
If you’re concerned about your toddler’s bouncing energy levels, try and figure out what triggers any behavior changes. Even if you can’t prevent all of these triggers, knowing them will make it easier for you to predict your toddler’s energy levels, and to redirect him when he get hyper. Being aware of your tot’s individual triggers and influences can also help you to understand why he acts a certain way sometimes.
Benefits of reducing sugar
This isn’t to let sugar completely off the hook; there are still good reasons to monitor or reduce the amount of sugar in your toddler’s diet. Children (and adults) who consume too much sugar are much more susceptible to dental problems, chronic health conditions like obesity and diabetes, and nutritional deficiencies. So even if sugar doesn’t cause hyperactivity, it can still contribute to some negative health outcomes for your toddler, and is definitely something to keep an eye on. After all, Baby‘s sweet enough all on his own!
- “Hyperactivity and Sugar.” MedlinePlus. US National Library of Medicine, May 2017. Available at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002426.htm.
- “Hyperactive Kids: What’s Sugar’s Role?” SugarScience. SugarScience, University of California, San Francisco, n.d. Available at http://sugarscience.ucsf.edu/hyperactive-kids-whats-sugars-role.html#.WThQYRPyuCS.
- Mark L Wolraich, et al. “The Effect of Sugar on Behavior or Cognition in Children.” JAMA. 274(20):1617-1621. Web. Nov 1995.
- DW Hoover, R Milich. “Effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactions.” J Abnorm Child Psychol. 22(4):501-15. Web. Aug 1994.
- Mark Wolraich, et al. “Effects of Diets High in Sucrose or Aspartame on The Behavior and Cognitive Performance of Children.” NEJM. 330:301-307. Web. Feb 1994.
- “Allergies and Hyperactivity.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, Nov 2015. Web.
- Esther H Wender, Mary V Solanto. “Effects of Sugar on Aggressive and Inattentive Behavior in Children With Attention Deficit Disorder With Hyperactivity and Normal Children.” Pediatrics. 88(5). Web. Nov 1991.