Is that can of soda causing your kids to bounce off the walls? You’re probably thinking, “Of course! They’re on a sugar high!” Parents and teachers often claim that eating sugar causes hyperactivity and behavior problems in children. However, numerous scientific studies have examined this claim, and none have found a connection between sugar or artificial sweeteners and hyperactivity.
Evidence for the Health Claim
Many parents feel that sugar causes hyperactivity in their children. The idea that food can impact behavior was first introduced in 1973 by allergist Benjamin Feingold. He based his “Feingold Diet” on stories from parents who reported that food additives, including sugar, made their children restless or irritable. Since then, studies have found that parents who expect sugar to affect their children are more likely to perceive their children as hyperactive after eating sugar or drinking sugary drinks than a nonbiased observer would. Many physicians respond to parents’ concerns by recommending low-sugar diets for hyperactive children.
Evidence Against the Health Claim
A number of researchers have investigated the “sugar hypothesis.” For example, Wolraich and colleagues put children aged 3-10 on three different diets for three consecutive three-week periods. The children were either normal preschoolers, or grade school children who were described by their parents as being sensitive to sugar.
The children were given either one diet high in sucrose, one high in aspartame (an artificial sweetener), and one high in saccharin (a sweet substance that presumably has no effect on behavior) during each three-week period. The children, parents, and researchers did not know which diet the children were on as it changed for each three-week period.
Observations of 39 behavioral and cognitive performance factors found that there were no significant differences between the three diets for the “sugar sensitive” children. Preschoolers showed slight variation among the 39 traits, but the differences did not form a pattern.
There is no evidence that consuming sugar or aspartame can make a child with a normal attention span hyperactive. Although sugar does make energy available to the body, it does not increase excitement or activity. Children with attention deficit-hyperactive disorder (ADHD) may metabolize sugar differently, and there exists the possibility that sugar may aggravate a behavior disorder that is already present. However, the majority of studies have found that even these children do not have negative or hyperactive reactions to sugar.
Despite widespread belief to the contrary, extensive research has not found a connection between sugar and hyperactivity. Such a link may seem to make sense because children are often hyperactive at social events where sugar is likely to be consumed, such as a birthday party or Halloween.
Hyperactivity and behavior problems are challenging to diagnosis and treat. Sugar-free diets have no place in the management of children with these conditions.
While it may be off the hook when it comes to children’s rowdy behavior, sugar still has few redeeming qualities. Dental cavities , obesity , and diabetes should provide plenty of incentive for parents to separate any child—wild or tame—from a seemingly limitless supply of sweets.