Does Sugar Really Make Children Hyper?

Nancy Huynh September 1, 2010 20

When your younger siblings or the kids you’re babysitting start bouncing off the walls and driving you insane, you’re more likely than not to blame their behavior on a “sugar high.” But is sugar actually the culprit? Years of oral tradition say yes, but modern science disagrees.

Science first became interested in the link between sugar and hyperactivity when the Feingold Diet became popular in 1973. Devised by allergist Dr. Benjamin Feingold, it advocated the removal of food additives, such as dyes and artificial flavors, from children’s diets because they might lead to hyperactivity. Although this special diet did not originally mention sugar, sugar became grouped under the category of food additives due to the common belief that it affected behavior.

Through various experiments over the years, scientists have discovered that no substantial evidence exists to support the claim that sugar causes hyperactivity. For example, University of Kentucky’s Dr. Hoover observed that removing and adding food additives in children’s diets provoked reported links to hyperactivity from parents although objective clinical tests proved otherwise. Dr. Wolraich from the University of Iowa gathered one group of normal preschoolers and another of those who were reportedly sensitive to sugar. He gave them sucrose, aspartame, or saccharin, the latter two of which are believed not to have any effect on behavior. After tests for hyperactivity, he was unable to find any significant differences in the children’s conduct. In a similar experiment, Dr. Shaywitz of the Yale University School of Medicine reported the same results for high doses of aspartame.

Nonetheless, other experiments show that sugar may at least influence behavior. Dr. Wesnes conducted a study in which he found that having a large amount of sugar for breakfast led to a severe deterioration of attention span when compared to having no breakfast or eating whole grain cereal. Dr. Tamborlane, also from Yale, reported that children given sugar had higher levels of adrenaline. A possible explanation for this effect is that since sugar is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, blood sugar rises quickly, which can lead to higher adrenaline levels and thus symptoms similar to those associated with hyperactivity. Furthermore, children with ADHD also tend to have higher levels of insulin.

Dr. Eugene Arnold from Ohio State University reported that more sugar leads to the production of more insulin, which depresses neutral amino acids in the blood, such as phenylalanine and tyrosine. Those particular amino acids are important because they are precursors to dopamine and norepinephrine, both of which play a large role in ADHD when their levels are too low. At the same time, however, tryptophan is slightly less affected by sugar intake, so when competing to cross the blood-brain barrier, more tryptophan can enter to spur serotonin release even when sugar-depressed neurotransmitters are unavailable. Thus, in this case the effect of sugar is likely mitigated.

In 1982, the National Institute of Health announced that no link between sugar and hyperactivity had been scientifically proven. Why, then, does this myth still persist? It may be mostly psychological. As previously stated, experimentation has shown that parents who believe in a link between sugar and hyperactivity see one, even though others do not. Another possibility is that children tend to be more excited at events like birthday and Halloween parties where sugary foods are usually served . People may have confused proximity with correlation although the environment is probably more to blame than the food.

But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to let children gorge themselves on sweets. Although sugar may not be linked to hyperactivity, it certainly is linked to obesity, diabetes, and cavities. There is no danger in limiting children’s sugar intake; however, Dr. Arnold warns that this myth can lead to the mistaken belief that sugar substitutes like aspartame are a better choice. We may have a whole new myth on our hands to bust.

20 Comments »

  1. Shula August 4, 2012 at 12:15 PM - Reply

    Nice article. A few caveats —

    (1) The Feingold diet specifically does NOT eliminate sugar … we’ve been busting that myth for decades. Not that sugar is good for you, and for some kids it definitely is a problem, as mentioned in this article.

    (2) The studies on sugar such as Wolraich, etc., studied only table sugar. Most candy, soda, etc. have corn syrup – and there seem to have been no studies on high fructose corn syrup and behavior. At Feingold, we definitely see a connection where children not sensitive to ordinary sugar react to corn syrup. If you never study the connection, you’re never gonna see one.

    • Daniel February 8, 2014 at 5:30 AM - Reply

      @Shula: Your response to this article makes it seem as if you didn’t bother to give it a critical — or even cursory — reading. The article itself states that the Feingold “did not originally mention sugar” before mentioning that sugar was erroneously lumped in with the prohibitions of that diet.

  2. Millie November 16, 2012 at 2:34 AM - Reply

    I have tested this theory a handful of times. Yes, Sugar makes my 11 year old hyper and more aggressive. If I didn’t see it myself I would have believed this article but I do not.

  3. Ess Doubleu January 9, 2013 at 2:37 AM - Reply

    I know my body pretty well, I only drink water -never soda-, and I stick to pretty hearty meals. When I eat a lot of sugar I can actually feel the effects it has inside my body and the rush. Sometimes I will even break out in a sweat. Now like the kids this can last up to half an hour or 5 min before I get the crash. I am 24 now and it is safe to say that seeing lots of sugary sweets or going to a Halloween party does not affect me psychologically.

  4. jenika April 17, 2013 at 10:38 AM - Reply

    You are so funny….just because you see candy at a party and don’t get excited like this article may say, does not mean this article is wrong….this myth has been going on for so long that people don’t want to believe actual test studies but you’ll believe other studies….kids are naturally hyper why won’t parents and adults UNDERSTANDthat, especially parents and baby sitters WHO rarely give kids sweets because of this myth…your kids are so excited that there actually getting sweets that they act in a way that you people believe its hype , its the joy of being a kid and you all want to take that away…cavities, obesity,diabetes now these are good proven reasons to keep your kids away from sweets….if your kids get hyper street one candy bar ask yourself when was the last time i actually let him/her have candy ? You will probably see its pure happiness…ugh people

  5. Mary Simas April 18, 2013 at 11:17 PM - Reply

    I ask my granddaughter doctor about sugar how it effects her and she said it had nothing to do with her being hiper after having sugar to the point that she can’t calm down and it only happens when she is given too much sugar. I don’t care what those studies say I see it with my own eyes and other mothers have said the same thing.

  6. Freddie Byrne April 19, 2013 at 3:41 PM - Reply

    This article does not make it clear how they selected the studies which they chose to present and which they chose to omit from the article.

    The one behavioural observation study that is cited, by Dr. Wolraich, even compares sugar with other artificial additives which the article ealrier stated were also thought to be linked with hyper-activity.

    Furthermore whilst the author is very keen to label this as a “myth”, they fail to recognise that a lack of evidence that sugar causes hyper-activity is not the same as evidence that it does not.

  7. eikman June 18, 2013 at 1:02 AM - Reply

    According to that Yale study, sugar raises adrenaline levels in children by ten folds. Adrenaline causes agressiveness, excitability, irritability, hyperactivity. And you just conclude otherwise because?

  8. Dennis June 29, 2013 at 11:26 PM - Reply

    The truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as children getting a “sugar high”.

    I agree they are excited to have a sweet treat and the parents play into their hype.

    Parents are always too quick to blame their children’s unacceptable behavior on an outside influence.

  9. u all suck August 29, 2013 at 9:26 AM - Reply

    u all r dumb if u dont eat alot of sugar of course your going to feel more up an going when you do. that being said sugar honestly only speeds up the breakdown of things in your body.

  10. I'm Skeptical September 16, 2013 at 10:43 PM - Reply

    Comparing sucrose, aspartame, and saccharin is truly poor experimental design. Where’s the real control? It’s pretty well known that artificial sweeteners have hormonal effects that thwart dieting efforts; this rules in the possibilty that artificial sweeteners may have some other biological effects as well. It seems then, that all that’s been proven is that all 3 sweeteners affect hyperactivty to the same extent. (The breakfast study seems better designed, so why are these types of results always ignored?)
    I used to believe the studies about the lack of a link between sugar and hyperactivity but I’ve tested it 100s of times on my son with the same results. Common sense >>> poor science!

  11. Ann November 23, 2013 at 2:05 PM - Reply

    I have always been able to drink 2-3 Dr. Peppers and be able to go to sleep without any problems of having too much energy. Sugar does not make you hyper!!

  12. parent December 15, 2013 at 7:21 PM - Reply

    For those of you that believe there is no “sugar rush” in children simply don’t have any kids.

  13. Brittany December 15, 2013 at 7:46 PM - Reply

    I’m actually sending this to Mythbusters as I read these. Jamie and Adam won’t let me down!

  14. Heather Jean February 7, 2014 at 5:47 PM - Reply

    So this is an argument of semantics? By their own admission, studies show that sugar does not cause hyperactivity, but may cause “symptoms similar to those associated with hyperactivity.” Seriously?

  15. akorne February 8, 2014 at 9:55 PM - Reply

    A university science magazine that provides no references? Really, what are they teaching you at Yale?

  16. sam February 9, 2014 at 1:44 AM - Reply

    I have a 7 year old. She acts out after eating sweets. However I do believe she’s a product of her environment. The environment being an idea she overheard of mine, that sugar makes her crazy. I introduced that idea to her. as an adult, and as her mother, it must be fact. Yup. Now I have to recondition us both.

  17. Benjamin February 9, 2014 at 3:48 AM - Reply

    I know from personal experience that sugar has a profound effect on me, so anyone that says it does not looks pretty foolish in my eyes. Makes me a bit shaky and agitated. That is real. I see it in my younger daughter too. Perhaps it does not qualify clinically as hyperactivity, but it is a significant and recognizable physiological change.

  18. katie February 9, 2014 at 5:36 PM - Reply

    .The study:” Dr. Wolraich from the University of Iowa gathered one group of normal preschoolers and another of those who were reportedly sensitive to sugar. He gave them sucrose, aspartame, or saccharin, the latter two of which are believed not to have any effect on behavior”
    …really annoys me, as the study wasn’t very scientific at all….the controls were not adequate…the substitutes use are questionable on whether it has effects on behaviour…(there still is a possibility that they might actually do so….)…plus as the article points out later “children tend to be more excited at events like birthday and Halloween parties where sugary foods are usually served”…so to test the kids again, at a party where they are excitable anyway can produce false results…
    The article is a bit crap too to not realise this…. To put two and two together… And to think, as the author appears to here….that the only time parents have noticed hyperactivity is at parties! Very flawed! (I don’t need to point out that parties isn’t the only time that children are exposed to sugar).
    So many people use that one fallible study to say what many parents (and some GPs etc too) can easily observe with some children is wrong, when experience proves otherwise…how they think they know better than clearly observed experience, I don’t know.
    Moreover, it has been found that sugar affects adults… so to conclude that sugar effects adults…and then say it doesn’t affect children who are smaller bodied and potentially more sensitive is a bit nonsensical…
    I came to this from experience, rather than failed studies…. This is more reliable than failed studies… And with careful experimenting, observing…including with a kind of ‘blind’ experiments accidentally…found out my son was sensitive….this was on one child, I can’t say this for all children…but I trust other parents experiences that are similar to my own rather than one unreliable study.
    Not that all kids may have this amount of sensitivity… But my son and his dad as an adult are both sensitive to sugar, causing mood swings, ‘hyperactivity’. Its different to the normal excess energy too usually…as if he gets that excess energy ‘naturally’ i can calm him down….if he’s had sugar i can’t really get through to him and it takes a while…

    The article does however point out
    “other experiments show that sugar may at least influence behavior. Dr. Wesnes conducted a study in which he found that having a large amount of sugar for breakfast led to a severe deterioration of attention span when compared to having no breakfast or eating whole grain cereal. Dr. Tamborlane, also from yale, reported that children given sugar had higher levels of adrenaline. A possible explanation for this effect is that since sugar is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, blood sugar rises quickly, which can lead to higher adrenaline levels and thus symptoms similar to those associated with hyperactivity. Furthermore, children with adhd also tend to have higher levels of insulin.”

    But then ignores all that evidence from what are probably more reliable studies! Which support parents experiences of kids on sugar..

    What kind of logic is that?!
    Unless the author equates hyperactivity with ADHD, rather than a symptom of ADHD or something, I can’t see the logic there. “Blood sugar rises quickly, which can lead to higher adrenaline levels and thus symptoms similar to those associated with hyperactivity”…surely those ‘symptoms’ are actually hyperactivity…that is a “ situation when a part of your body is too active” .
    ‘Scientific’? Barely.

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