Written by Dr. Valentina Quintana MD on
August 26, 2021
Written by Dr. Valentina Quintana MD on:

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

There’s no question that sugar is a favorite among children. It can present challenges in everyday life – and at parties or gatherings where treats are served.

Most parents note that any time a child has contact with sugary foods, they will become wild and bounce all over the place. However, how much of this common knowledge is backed up in science? Does sugar make you hyper?  

Well, the data suggests the “sugar-hyperactivity theory” is not clear yet. Although it does not mean that sugar has no effect on your brain or body.

This may come as a surprise to you, as a parent of a child with hyperactivity, or as someone who has ADHD.

To put this theory into perspective, let’s explore the science behind it.

Where Did the Sugar-Hyperactivity Theory Come From?

For decades, experts have debated about the link between hyperactivity and sugar consumption. Or other artificial additives causing ADHD symptoms. 

Speculation about how food affects behavior started in 1973. At that moment the pediatrician and allergist Benjamin Feingold published his book “The Feingold Diet“.

In his book, Dr. Feingold suggested a dietary approach to help kids with symptoms of ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities.

His diet eliminated certain foods or ingredients. Some of them were: artificial food colorings and flavors, salicylates, and food preservatives. Some artificial sweeteners were also ruled out to treat hyperactivity. These include aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose.

Despite Dr. Feingold’s diet did not prohibit the consumption of sugar, many parents started avoiding food additives as a whole. Sugar soon became a popular enemy among many. Those looking for a healthier lifestyle and those who wanted to decrease hyperactivity and ADHD symptoms in children.

Three years later, in a study conducted on hyperactive children found that many had low blood sugar levels after a glucose tolerance test. Hypoglycemia is a potent stimulus for adrenaline, and its characteristic nervousness and hyperactivity. This finding contributed to the idea of sugar causing hyperactivity.

What We Know About Sugar

Sugar is a type of carbohydrate found in many foods and beverages. And it does not only come from candy bars or donuts.

The sugar-sweetened beverages that children drink most are:

  • Sodas
  • Fruit drinks
  • Sweetened teas
  • Energy drinks
  • Juices with added sugars

But you will also find it in dairy products, cereal and other grain-based foods, baked goods like cakes or cookies, and desserts like ice cream.

It is also found naturally in foods like honey, vegetables, fruits and dairy products. There are many different types of sugars including:

  • Glucose (blood sugar)
  • Fructose (fruit)
  • Lactose and galactose (milk)
  • And Maltose (grains)

Same as with any other food, sugar behaves differently in different individuals. This can depend on their physical predispositions and how much they consume at one time.

Sugar And Hyperactivity In Children

Over the past three decades, multiple studies have been conducted on how sugar affects children’s behavior.

In 1995, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a meta-analysis based on 16 studies in the matter until then. The researchers only included double-blind placebo-controlled studies -which means good quality studies.

They concluded that dietary sugar did not make a difference in the children’s behavior. But they didn’t rule out the possibility of sugars having an effect on a small number of children.

Later, in 2006 a study conducted on Norwegian adolescents found something different. Scientists concluded that high consumption of sugary soft drinks was linked to mental health problems. Those included conduct problems, mental distress and hyperactivity.

More recently, in 2019, a study based on 6 to 11 year old children found no association between sugar consumption and incidence ADHD.

As you can see, scientific data does not yet prove a definitive relationship between sugar and hyperactivity. And we may have to wait 10 or more years before solving this puzzle.

The most important thing now is to monitor your or your child’s symptoms and respond accordingly. Sugar might not be the biggest of all evils, but it’s certainly no innocent friend either. Hence you shouldn’t give into its tempting offerings too often, such as candy, fruit juices and processed foods.

Does Sugar Make You Hyper?

Some studies have found some effects of high sugar consumption in rats. 

A 2015 study conducted in male rats found that those who were given a “western-style diet” were more hyperactive and impulsive. That diet included high amounts of lard and dextrose -a form of sugar- and it was compared to rats who consumed a normal diet. 

Another study in 2021 showed that long-term sugar overconsumption in mice increases hyperactivity. Neurocognitive deficits in adulthood were also seen.

But how do these findings translate into human beings?

The Sweet Truth

There have been no studies on humans that show a definitive link between sugar consumption and behavior problems in children. But in adults there might be a different story.

In a 2020 study based on Swedish adults aged 20 to 47 years, researchers found an association between ADHD and an unhealthy dietary pattern. That included the intake of high-sugar, high fat, and high protein foods. The associations were small, but larger for inattention compared to hyperactivity symptoms.

So it’s not that scientists can assure there is no effect at all.

Expectations Can Affect Perceptions

Despite the research, many parents still point to sugar as the cause for a child’s hyperactivity. Expectations are powerful. What you expect to happen has the power to influence how you interpret what you see unfold. And it might lead you to make mistakes when it comes to the causes of your child’s behavior.

Some researchers say that the expectations you have can influence how you perceive things.

A 1994 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology found something interesting. Mothers who were told their children had received a large dose of sugar rated their children as more hyperactive.

Another group of mothers were told their children had received placebo and they didn’t rate their children as much affected. The thing is that all the kids in the study were given a placebo. But it seems that parental expectations led to different perceptions of behavior among the children.

Furthermore, the researchers also videotaped the interactions between the boys and their moms. The tapes revealed that mothers who believed their sons had been given sugar stayed closer to their sons. They also were more likely to criticize, look at and talk to them than mothers who weren’t told of a child’s supposed sugar intake.

Guilty By Association?

It may be tempting to think that your child’s rocky mood during a birthday party comes from all the sweet snacks being consumed. But in reality, it might come from his or her excitement of playing games and enjoying time with friends.

Experts say you should take a close look at your child’s environment before assuming sugar is causing his or her hyperactivity. Or any change in behavior. Some studies even suggest that sugar can have a soothing effect. That is because it produces a chemical called serotonin, which contributes to feelings of well-being.

Are Some Children More Sensitive To Sugar?

There does not appear to be any conclusive evidence that sugar is an effective cause of hyperactivity. Unfortunately, it appears that some children may be more sensitive to sugars than others. But the cause does not appear to be related to the sugar  itself.

To test whether this might be the case, one group of researchers published a study in The New England Journal of Medicine. They looked at two groups of children. One group was aged between 3 and 5, while the other was made up of kids from 6 to 10. The older ones were sensitive to sugar according to their parents.

The experiment consisted of following three experimental diets for three weeks each. One high in sucrose and low in aspartame, a second one low in sucrose, but with aspartame.

The third diet was also low in sucrose, but with saccharin as sweetener. All three diets were free from artificial food colorings, additives, and preservatives.

The study included aspartame, because it has been considered a possible cause of hyperactivity in children. And other behavior problems too.

Scientists assessed the children’s behavior and cognitive performance at the end of each week. They concluded that for those kids described as sensitive to sugar, there were no significant differences.

None of the three diets showed association with hyperactivity. Even more, neither sucrose nor aspartame affected the children’s behavior or cognitive function.

Taking the totality of findings together, it appears that any effect sugar has on behavior doesn’t affect most children.

Beyond Sugar

If you’re concerned about sugar and your child’s behavior, it might be helpful to explore other potential causes. There are genetic and environmental factors that may worsen hyperactivity symptoms. There have been a number of studies done to identify the most commonly found risk factors for ADHD. You’ll find that some can’t be modified while others can:

Dietary changes, sleep difficulties, and other medical problems should also be ruled out. If you have any concerns please contact a healthcare provider.

Still Not Convinced?

If you suspect that your child’s food intake is causing any adverse reactions, consult with their pediatrician.  Whether it’s sugar or other food items,  you don’t necessarily have to make extreme diet changes. Or eliminate whole groups of foods to improve the situation.

There are many things you can do to help your child’s behavior. They include:

  • Monitoring the amount of sugar they’re consuming and limiting it when possible  – this does not mean eliminating all sugar from their diet.
  • Encouraging them to take a break after completing tasks or projects, even for just 20 minutes.
  • Giving them a bedtime routine, which might include reading, bathing or meditation.
  • Making sure they get enough sleep.
  • Providing them with a safe and comforting environment, free from things that are stressful to them.
  • Eliminating any exposure to lead or pesticides through their diet as much as possible. You can find out which foods have high levels of these substances by consulting your doctor. You can also contact the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

The Lifestyle Factor

There is a study that was conducted on students aged 10 and 11 years. Meeting the recommendations for different foods intake was associated with a lower rate of ADHD. Fruits and vegetables, meats, sugars and saturated fats were measured.

According to the researchers, adherence to a healthy diet has the potential to reduce the high prevalence and health care burden of ADHD. These recommendations were eating:

  • 6 or more servings of fruits and vegetables
  • 3 or more servings of milk and alternative products
  • 6 or more servings of grain products
  • 2 or more servings of meat and alternatives
  • Less than 10% of total energy intake from saturated fat
  • Less than 10% of total energy intake from added sugar

Other items were sleep duration, total daily television screen time, and physical activity.

Get Sugar Savvy

Now that you know that science has not found a clear link between sugar consumption and hyperactivity in children. But it doesn’t mean that now sugar is risk-free for other conditions. There are more serious health concerns that come with it.

The last decades science has identified health risks associated with eating excess sugar. Eating too much sugar can lead to serious conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart and kidney diseases and tooth decay.

A little sugar should not be discouraged. If you want your child to have a healthy relationship with food, you should let him or her have some every now and then. But if you or your child eat too much it can easily go from an occasional treat to a daily habit.

The problem with this, is that sugary junk food will fill you up and leave no room for healthier options like fresh fruits and vegetables. Sometimes it is okay, but it shouldn’t stop you from getting your vitamins and minerals.

Sugar should preferably be consumed as part o a main meal and in a natural form, such as:

  • Unsweetened cow or sheep milk
  • Unsweetened dairy products
  • Fresh fruits
  • Homemade granola with dehydrated fruits

Sugary treats such as sugary drinks, candy, and fruit juice should be reserved for special occasions.

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