Busting the Sugar-Hyperactivity Myth
Are you convinced the reason for your son or daughter's rowdiness lies in a box of Milk Duds? You're not alone.
Are you convinced the reason for your son or daughter's rowdiness lies in a
box of Milk Duds? You?re not alone. Many concerned parents and health
organizations believe there is a link between a child's diet and behavior. The
latest group to join the debate is the nonprofit Center for Science in the
Public Interest, which recently released a report charging that the government,
professional agencies and the food industry have been ignoring evidence that
diet affects behavior. However, the majority of studies so far haven't found a
connection, and most in the medical industry maintain there is no known link
between sugar and hyperactivity.
Still, many concerned parents feel certain they've seen a cause-and-effect
relationship between sweets and rowdiness. Admittedly, more research would be
needed to completely rule out the possibility of a link, but there are many
plausible reasons other than sugar why a child may be bouncing off the
Where Did the Sugar-Hyperactivity Theory Come From?
The notion that food can have an effect on behavior grew popular in 1973
when allergist Benjamin Feingold, M.D., published the Feingold Diet. He
advocated a diet free of salicylates, food colorings and artificial flavoring
for treating hyperactivity. Although Feingold?s diet didn't call for
eliminating sugar specifically, it did suggest to many parents that food
additives might be better avoided. Little surprise, then, that refined sugar
soon came under scrutiny.
Then a 1978 study published in the journal Food and Cosmetics
Toxicology found that hyperactive children given glucose tolerance tests
had results that suggested reactive hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). As yet,
though, there are no good theories to explain the connection.
What We Know About Sugar
In the past 10 years, several studies have examined the effects of sugar on
children's behavior. Here are the aspects of the studies that make them
- Known quantities of sugar in the diets were studied.
- The studies compared the effects of sugar with those of a placebo (a
substance without any active ingredients).
- The children, parents and researchers involved in the studies never knew
which children were given which diets (this is known as a
"double-blind" study and helps to prevent unconscious biases from
affecting the results).
An analysis of the results of all these studies was published in the
November 22, 1995 issue of the Journal of the American Medical
Association. The researchers' conclusions? Sugar in the diet did not affect
the children's behavior. The authors did point out, though, that the studies
didn't rule out completely that sugar might be having a slight effect on a
small number of children.
Expectations Can Affect Perceptions
In spite of this research, why do so many parents still believe sugar makes
children hyperactive? Some researchers suggest that simply expecting sugar to
affect your child can influence how you interpret what you see. A study
published in the August 1994 Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology showed
that parents who believe a child's behavior is affected by sugar are more
likely to perceive their children as hyperactive when they've been led to
believe the child has just had a sugary drink.