Quirky Questions: Can sugar really make kids hyperactive?

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At one time or another we’ve all seen kids get excited and more frenetic after having that slice (or two) of birthday cake or after having an after-school soda. But are these outbursts of energy purely anecdotal, or can a “sugar rush” truly cause children to become hyperactive?

For decades, the increase of refined sugar in our diets has been blamed for these types of outbursts, in addition to more serious developmental issues such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Indeed, the case against sugar is a plausible one. Since sugar is a vital energy source for our bodies, it makes logical sense that a sudden spike in blood sugar level may cause us to feel more energetic. However, over the years, the results of numerous studies have not proven this to be true. In fact, at least twelve double-blind, placebo-controlled studies (a type of experiment whereby neither the subjects nor those leading the research know certain critical aspects of the study) and a meta-analysis (a larger analytical study using the combined data from multiple studies) failed to show a causal relationship between sugar intake and hyperactive behavior, inattention, and changes in cognitive performance in children. Furthermore, these studies do not demonstrate a causal relationship between sugar intake and behavior issues among children diagnosed with ADHD.

Consider Other Culprits

But can millions of parents be wrong? Perhaps. Researchers theorize that the widespread belief that sugar causes hyperactivity propagates this expectancy among adults. In addition, we often fail to see the everyday occurrences that likely cause children to be more energetic in the first place: the birthday party itself, the favorite television show, or the excitement of playing with friends. Most of all, some children love their sugary snacks and have been known to get quite excited when they are given these treats. However, anecdotal evidence shouldn’t be discounted so easily. It’s very likely that behavioral changes associated with consumption of sugar is a multifactorial process. Certainly, intake of energy-rich foods can afford us stamina to sustain physical activity. And perhaps the large amounts of sugar consumed by today’s children may play a role in this. In fact, critics of the above-mentioned studies point to the fact that the sugar challenges used were far too low (roughly the amount contained in one 16-ounce can of soda) and may not adequately represent real-world sugar consumption. It’s also important to note that while sugar alone hasn’t been correlated with hyperactivity, the Western diet in general—which tends to be high in sugar (including lots of soda) and fat, and low in fiber—has.

Look at the Big Picture

Regardless of the exact cause, keep in mind that being energetic is part of a spectrum of normal behavior for children. Depending on their age, kids may display varying amounts of activity and bursts of energy. It’s also important to know the signs when a more serious issue may be at hand. When children display hyperactive behavior in a chronic manner, especially if it begins to adversely affect academic performance or interpersonal relationships, an investigation into a true behavioral problem should be considered.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents: Epidemiology and pathogenesis. UptoDate. http://www.uptodate.com/contents/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-in-children-and-adolescents-epidemiology-and-pathogenesis. Accessed Mar 7, 2012.

Krummel DA, et al. Hyperactivity: is candy causal? Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 1996;36 (1-2): 31.

Wolraich ML, et al. The effect of sugar on behavior or cognition in children. A meta-analysis. JAMA. 1995; 274 (20):1617.

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