Why aren’t my kids hyper after binging on sugar?

by Gillian Mayman on October 1, 2012

An illustrated guide to parenting with science.

I refuse to buy cookies, candy, and other sugary treats at the grocery store. This isn’t because I insist on perfect nutrition for my children. It’s because if I buy anything like that, my kids will consume it all within an hour of it arriving in our kitchen.

When the occasional Oreo binge does happen, I’ve noticed something. It has no immediate effect on the behavior of my kids. In particular, it doesn’t make them hyper.

Among the adults that I interact with regularly- parents and teachers-  the fact that sugar causes kids to be ‘hyper’ is a commonly held belief. Not hyper in a medical/ADHD sense, but hyper in the way that otherwise reasonably calm children will start running around, bouncing off of walls, and generally acting out of control.

Our human brains are wired to look for causal connections. If we see that our child is hyper after attending a birthday party and eating cake, ice cream, and sugary drinks, we quickly conclude that the sugar is the cause.

I’m a skeptic at heart and I’ve always wondered about the causal link between sugar and hyperactivity. A search of the published literature proved that this has long been known to be nonexistent. In fact, it’s such old news that almost all of the articles on this topic are from the mid-nineties and earlier.

A review of 12 separate research studies found that there was no evidence that eating sugar makes kids hyper.

Each study was randomized, placebo-controlled, and double-blind. That is, half of the kids were randomly chosen to eat real sugar and half of the kids were given artificial sweetener. In addition, 1) the researchers did not know which kids were given real sugar and 2) the mothers and their children did not know which kids were given real sugar.

The results were clear.

The researchers observing the children did not notice any difference between the two groups. However, when moms thought their kids had eaten sugar, they thought that their kids were hyper. Regardless of whether their child had actually eaten sugar. When moms thought their kids had not eaten sugar, they thought that their kids were  not hyper. Again, regardless of whether their child had actually eaten sugar.

A particularly troublesome finding was that for some children, if they were told that sugar would make them hyper, then they actually would become hyper after thinking that they had eaten sugar.

We not only create our own reality, we also create our children’s.

Krummel, D. A., Seligson, F. H., & Guthrie, H. A. (1996). Hyperactivity: Is candy causal? Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 36(1-2), 31-47. doi: 10.1080/10408399609527717

Shara E October 1, 2012 at 8:54 am

I love it! I wonder if there has been any research on parents ‘creating’ other behavioral problems in children, i.e. what about anger issues? I’m extending this quite a bit outward from the suger/hyper concept as that has a clearer cause and effect, but it’s still fun to think about. I’m curious to see what the commenters who are parents think about this! Great job Gillian! (again!)

Gabriel Wolf October 2, 2012 at 9:29 am

There was recently a story on NPR about how teachers believes affected how children behaved in class. I wish I could post a link for you. But it’s out there, an they do affect each other!

Mark Caron October 3, 2012 at 7:24 am
Quintus October 1, 2012 at 9:11 am

A nice post. As a father of three I would suggest that children, especially younger ones “feed off” the emotional state of the parents. We often noticed this when there was tension between myself and my wife. This effect dissipated as they got older.

Margaet October 1, 2012 at 10:25 am

Gillian,
I think I am beginning to get addicted to your cartoons. I like the topic and like most adults have heard that candy can make you hyper. The cartoons might still be a little complicated for younger children, but are great for adults. It is interesting what the power of our minds can do to our perceptions and the perceptions our children have of themselves.

Margaret

Gillian Mayman October 1, 2012 at 2:51 pm

I encourage your addiction :)

I really don’t draw the cartoons for kids but more for parents and adults. Some things just seem easier to explain or reinforce through pictures. Plus, science can be boring to read and I wanted to make this a little fun.

Paula Johnson, PhD, MPH October 1, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Definitely fun with the cartoons…kept me reading until the end. Great job.
And, sugar does make you tired, once your insulin level crashes, or is that another myth?

John Spevacek October 2, 2012 at 9:40 am

I agree with Margaet on the cartoons. They are unique and useful, but they sure must take a lot of time to prepare.

Karen October 1, 2012 at 10:37 am

Very interesting post. “No more candy, you’ll be bouncing off the walls” is something I’ve said and heard often. So, if the opposite message was conveyed to children – “No more candy, it’ll make you tired” – would they respond in kind?

On a more serious note, your conclusions reinforce the significance of how powerful an impact a parent’s expectations of a child can have on the child’s expectations of herself or himself.

Kristen October 1, 2012 at 2:38 pm

I love it! “No more candy, it’ll make you tired.” Would it be so terrible if I ran an experiment on my own kid here using that very phrase. I could get a dual benefit, if he eats it he’ll go to sleep OR he won’t want to eat candy *because* he won’t want to go to sleep. It’s win-win.

Gillian Mayman October 1, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I love this comment, too. It makes me think of warm milk before bed.

Michael Brewer October 4, 2012 at 3:47 am

It is difficult to actually convey the sense of calm, sleepyness though. It’s not like you could let the kids whack open a pinata and then say “But don’t eat too much kids, you’ll all get sleepy!” We offer candy as a reward and create a sense of excitement over it. To make the sleepy-candy thing work, you’d have a lot of changes to make in how you handle candy.

Lara October 1, 2012 at 10:55 am

Nice job using great graphics to convey your message.

Kristen October 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm

This was great. As a mom of a three-year-old, I’ve heard the “sugar myth” a lot. I’ve never believed it myself and therefore have not experienced it with my own son. So I like that you pointed out that we can be our own worst enemies – if we believe it will happen, we will perceive it as happening. The ol’ placebo effect. The only thing that I’ve noticed that makes him a bit crazy is lack of sleep.

Ginny Kendall October 1, 2012 at 4:36 pm

I love it when old myths are de-bunked! I think Karen should try the inverse (sugar will make you tired) and get back to us!

Ferdinandinand October 1, 2012 at 6:46 pm

myth, yes. doesn’t make sugar “good for you” though…

Gillian Mayman October 1, 2012 at 8:18 pm

Absolutely true! There are many, many other ways that sugar is not good for you. There are also some studies that show a possible link between eating high levels of sugar over the long term and its effect on behavior.

Jenni October 1, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Going to a party (birthday, holiday or classroom) is exciting and out of the norm so naturally kids get excited or hyper. There are games, crafts and, of course treats, but I think it is the excitement that winds our kids up ;)

Wilhelm October 1, 2012 at 6:53 pm

What about the effect of sweet flavourings (whether artifical or natural) on behaviour?

Michael Brewer October 4, 2012 at 3:49 am

That is what they used as the placebo.

Mary October 1, 2012 at 8:59 pm

Love this–both because of those amazing illustrations of yours and because it’s nice to see this myth get a good debunking. I wonder if teachers also create their students’ realities–I have heard many teachers talk about hyper behavior in the classroom the day after Halloween.

Eric October 1, 2012 at 9:51 pm

Everyone’s DNA is different. Rather that believe it has no effect I think it’s far more likely that sugar has a large effect on a few kids and the result is then generalized to all kids.

Barth October 2, 2012 at 3:37 pm

While you’re entitled to your beliefs, in this case there doesn’t seem to be any objective evidence supporting them, as opposed to your subjective, anecdote-based assumptions of causation.

Robin October 9, 2012 at 7:24 pm

Barth you made me smile :)

Stephan October 1, 2012 at 10:17 pm

I would be more interested in a study that investigates the link between gut health, cane sugar consumption and hyperactivity. Myself and other parents of children on the autism spectrum are well familiar with the benefits of the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (GAPS in my kid’s case).
I’ve never seen as dramatic an effect on my child’s behaviour as when we started implementing the GAPS diet. No more hyperactivity. Zero.

Chris October 1, 2012 at 11:59 pm

That would be a compelling counter-point had the study not plainly shown that a parent’s perception of their own child’s behavior is fundamentally faulty. You see what you already expected to see.

Patricia October 1, 2012 at 11:55 pm

Really loved your post!!!! Excellent writting, excellent graphics and animation and great recopilation of studies.

And thanks, no one believed me that sugar didn’t make kids hyper!!!

Naomi October 2, 2012 at 12:43 am

Awesome. I come from a country where there is no such belief, and have heard this over and over again since I moved to the US. I was very skeptical, and just thought that my kids were not affected by sugar like other kids may be (read: like other kids’ Moms say they are). I’m glad to hear I’m not so weird after all.

Duediligence October 2, 2012 at 2:02 am

Your review assumes artificial sweetener does not cause hyperactivity. To be fair the control group must have a placebo, not a manufactured chemical. Artificial sweetener potentially has neuro excitement effects on children.

Your expectation that artificial sweetener does not cause hyperactivity carries a similar flawed assumption that the mothers have by assuming sugar makes children hyper. What if it indeed also causes hyperactivity and both groups of children were influenced?

This article is not objective.

rick October 2, 2012 at 3:07 am

Only in America….get a life

John F October 2, 2012 at 3:48 am

i) It would be good to know the type of sweetener used. Many are not much more artificial or ‘manufactured’ than refined sugar.

ii) But the point of a randomised double-blind trial is that some children were given artificial sweetener and their parents were told it was sugar. Some of the children were given sugar and told it was artificial sweetener. According to the author there was no way to predict link between behaviour and the type of sweetener given. I quote (emphasis mine), “when moms thought their kids had eaten sugar, they _thought that their kids were hyper. Regardless of whether their child had actually eaten sugar_. When moms thought their kids had not eaten sugar, _they thought that their kids were *not* hyper. Again, regardless of whether their child had actually eaten sugar_.”

adrinux October 4, 2012 at 6:43 am

Duediligence, you’re forgetting that the researchers perceived no change in child behaviour – neither group was seen to get hyper, the only people that thought the kids were hyper were the mums that thought their kids have sugar.

Personally, there does seem to be some connection between food and more excitable behaviour. Our kids are often sitting quietly reading books before a meal and then chasing around shouting etc after one. Fresh energy to burn I guess :)

Cneil October 2, 2012 at 5:26 am

Most situations that offer sugar also offer caffeine.
Does caffeine make kids “hyper?

evilDoug October 4, 2012 at 6:24 pm

I knew a kid that would get very hyper after consuming sugar – with a large dose of caffeine (from the friendly people at the Coca Cola Company). At the time, in Canada, only cola drinks were permitted to contain caffeine. It seems our gubmint now thinks it is OK in any soft drink, so the stores are filled with drugs for children.
Some chocolate seems to be inordinately high in theobromine. I can’t eat (the foamy milk chocolate bar) late in the day, or it will keep me awake.

Sarah W October 2, 2012 at 8:20 am

I’ve never really bought into the idea that sugar makes kids hyper. Never had that effect on my daughter and my son has ADHD and is like tigger on speed no matter what he has. The only time he goes off the scale is when he has orange juice (as in fresh) or eats/drinks something containing aspartame. The latter is in far too much ‘sugar-free’ stuff in the UK and it sends him (and my friend’s little boy) over the edge.

Joanne October 2, 2012 at 8:43 am

Ha, I had to laugh with the last line. My son is CONVINCED that if he eats sugar he will become hyper. He makes a big show of it. Of course, it only lasts a few minutes because he is so not a “run around and bounce off the walls” kid and he soon runs out of steam. Just thought it was funny, since I never believed sugar made kids hyper, but he obviously picked the idea up somewhere.

kate byerwalter October 2, 2012 at 9:04 am

Love this cartoon style!

I was wondering if you could also find out if sugar causes bad dreams? Probably not….

Tonanamous October 2, 2012 at 10:27 am

Welcome to the 21st century… my son is 14 and I have known this information as fact since he was born, and tried to dispel the myth among other parents. Why this is so persistent, is a mystery, although I think it has to do with “my kids are misbehaving, there must be some reason other than my parenting skills.”

Anne October 2, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Funny how every culture has its share of false beliefs. I’m Dutch. We believe that drafts are very dangerous. Two windows open in a house or car, and the Dutch (or Germans) become panicky about getting sick. The expression “op de tocht staan”, to stand in a draft, elicits all kinds of fear. It’s all in our heads. After moving to the US, I always thought this was weird, this kids-and-sugar fear. I had never heard of that before. Glad to know it’s nonsense :-)

Summer October 2, 2012 at 3:47 pm

That is not to rule out food sensitivities. My oldest son is very sensitive to chocolate, if he has very much at all his very normal passive personality gets very aggressive and violent within a matter of minutes. I’ve watched it too many times to not believe it. My other son is fine.

Mike October 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm

I like this, but I would counterpoint that there is almost no difference between a “hyper” child and a “happy” child. This would explain the “placebo effect” in the fake/real candy studies. When children get candy, they are happy. When children are happy, they run around, make hella noise, and seem hyper. So, really, what we should be saying is “Don’t give him/her candy. It makes him/her happy.” Now, all science aside, that’s an approach to child-rearing I can get behind.

saijanai October 2, 2012 at 5:18 pm

One slight nit here: while sugar itself might not be the culprit, there might be ingredients commonly associated with sugary food that DO make the kids hyper.

Most parents don’t give pure sugar to their kids after all.

Gillian Mayman October 2, 2012 at 8:37 pm

The study was titled, “Hyperactivity: Is candy causal?” and it looked at many factors in addition to sugar. It was just the sugar that I focused on. If you can get your hands on the full article, maybe through your library, it might be interesting to you.

Mark Caron October 3, 2012 at 7:24 am
Chris October 3, 2012 at 12:41 pm

It isn’t sugar that does it- it is the artificial colors!!

Christine Hickey October 5, 2012 at 1:24 am

I must say that I did not notice any hyper behavior in my children when they had consumed lots of sugary items. The red and orange colourings in some drinks did tho. But as an adult I find that I become irritable if I have sugary things.

Michelle October 5, 2012 at 9:59 am

Ahhh… but what if artificial sugar acts on us in similar ways to real sugar? You’d see no difference. I’d like to see a third control group that was given NO sugar or sugar substitutes, and see what comes of it. Not withstanding the links to hyperactivity and perceptions, I think we’re finding out more and more that fake sugar can have serious impacts on our bodies and physiology as well.

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