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.

3 min read

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 walls.

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.

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 credible:

  • 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.

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.

As parents, your observations are important, and any concerns you have about your child?s diet should be explored carefully and discussed with your pediatrician. There is often much more to the story of a child's hyperactivity than the Frosted Flakes they eat for breakfast every morning. Some factors associated with hyperactivity include:

If after looking at everything else in your child?s life you still feel food is causing an adverse reaction, your first step should be to consult with your child?s doctor. Extreme approaches, such as eliminating whole groups of foods, can do more harm than good. After giving your child a complete physical and studying their history, your doctor may refer you to a nutritionist or an allergist -- or you might seek one out on your own.