Sugar + kids = hyperactive kids?

It is a common belief that high-sugar or sucrose consumption causes hyperactivity in children.(1-4) If you find yourself on the ‘don’t feed kids loads of sugary snacks or red cordial because they’ll be out-of-control and hyper’ bandwagon, sorry to drop the bomb, but there is no scientific evidence behind this claim. Research has consistently shown no connection between sugar consumption and hyperactivity in children.(3,4) How this myth originated is unclear. Though numerous studies have proven this to be a myth, the connection between sugar and hyperactivity is still a typical misconception among many parents.

A double-blind controlled trial performed by Wolraich et al. did not find conclusive evidence that a diet high in sucrose or aspartame had an effect on the behaviour or cognitive performance of children.(3) Subjects were described by their parents as sensitive to sugar.(3) These subjects were divided into two groups – 25 normal preschool aged children, and 23 school-aged children. Children and their families followed a different diet over the course of three consecutive three-week periods: 1) high in sucrose with no artificial sweetener, 2) low in sucrose with aspartame as the artificial sweetener, and 3) low in sucrose with saccharin (placebo) as the sweetener.(3) The results show that even when intake exceeded typical dietary levels, neither sucrose nor aspartame had any significant affect on children’s behaviour and cognitive performance. This is also true for children who were described as sugar-sensitive by their parents.(3) Similarly, a meta-analysis of the reported studies conducted between 1982 – 1994 of the effect of sugar on children’s behaviour also found no conclusive relationship.(4) The sixteen studies included in the meta-analysis used similar study designs and administered sugar (usually in the form of sucrose) to subjects.(4) Though these studies conclude that a diet high in sucrose does not affect behaviour, notably hyperactivity, they do not eliminate the possibility of a small effect on subjects with pre-existing dietary conditions.(4)

Despite a lack of scientific evidence to support the apparent causal relationship between sugar and hyperactivity, the impression of parents remains.(1,2,4) After conducting a test on parents and children where parents believed their children’s behaviour was adversely affected by sugar consumption, Hoover and Milich suggest that a possible explanation for this impression is expectancy.(5) In their study, children were administered an artificially sweetened beverage. Half of the children’s parents were told that their children are consuming a sugar-laden drink, and all parents were asked to make observations and rate their children’s behaviour. Whilst doing so, researchers observed the parents’ behaviour and interaction with their children. The parent rating for behaviour ranged from -0.57 to 1.11, with over 60 percent of measures greater than 0.42, indicating a skewed perception. Hoover and Milich concluded that parents’ expectancies can significantly affect the way they perceive children’s behaviour.(5)

Children often display excitement at celebrations and special events where sugary foods are also served.(1,2,4,5) Therefore it is common for the variation in children’s behaviour to be mistakenly correlated with sugar consumption. Furthermore, publicity that exemplifies this myth will likely encourage and direct parents to expect this association between sugar consumption and adverse behaviour in their children.(5)

Although sugar-laden diets are not a contributor to hyperactivity, having too much sugar (especially from sugar-sweetened beverages) has been associated with other problems among kids such as dental issues and excess weight gain. Therefore, parents should monitor and restrict their children’s (sugar) consumption as to look out for their future.

Sugar + kids = hyperactivity: FACT OR FICTION? -FICTION-

1. Wardlaw GM, Hampl JS. Perspectives in nutrition. 7th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007.

2. Whitney E, Rolfes SR, Crowe T, Cameron-Smith D, Walsh A. Understanding nutrition: Australian and New Zealand edition. 1st ed. Melbourne: Cengage Learning, 2011.

3. Wolraich ML, Lindgren SD, Stumbo PJ, Stegink LD, Applebaum MI, Kiritsy MC. Effects of diets high in sucrose or aspartame on the behaviour and cognitive performance of children. N Engl J Med 1994;330(5):301-6.

4. Wolraich ML, Wilson DB, White JW. The effect of sugar on behavior or cognition in children: a meta-analysis. J Am Med Assoc 1995;274(20):1617-21.

5. Hoover D, Milich R. Effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactions. J Abnorm Child Psychol 1994;22:501-15.


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