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