Quickie of the Week: What!? Sugar doesn’t make you hyper?!

In response to the Energy Drink post, buddies Kathleen O. and Michael S. asked:

“Are you serious? Sugar doesn’t make me hyper?”

I am serious.

And there are many elegant studies supporting this. The coolest of them involved a bit of deception. The researchers basically gave a bunch of kids a sugar-free drink. The researchers told half of the parents that their kids had received a large amount of sugar, and they told the other half of the parents that their kids had received only a sugar-free drink. (But again, none of them drank any sugar!) The mothers who thought their kids had sugar rated their kids as significantly more hyperactive, and were much more critical of their behavior.

Further support for the debunking of this myth is a meta-analysis of 16 well-controlled studies investigating how sugar affects kids’ behavior or cognitive performance. All of these studies were “blind,” meaning that the research staff, the kids, and the parents did not know which condition (either sugar or sugar substitute) they were in. The authors concluded from the analysis that sugar does not affect behavior or cognitive performance. Many other meta-analyses and reviews have since been published that also conclude sugar does not make kids more hyper, despite what it seems like the rest of the world continues to believe.

But I swear that I / my kid / my coworker / my dog gets insanely hyper after eating candy!

Well, a couple of alternative hypotheses are:

A. you thinking they (or you!) are more hyper because of the sugar and therefore viewing the situation differently or even treating yourself / your child / your coworker differently. The power of expectation to influence your perception is a widely established phenomenon in psychology. (And please, don’t give your dog candy.)

or maybe

Party Peeps

B. the fact that oftentimes more sugary treats are eaten during fun parties or exciting events with lots of happy peeps. (Note: I mean people, not Peeps!) I get more hyper at parties, too! So remember, just because two things “go together” (sugar given at parties and hyperactivity) doesn’t mean one causes the other.

I’m not saying you should hook up your kid’s mainline to Pixie Stix. There are many reasons not to consume tons of sugar-filled treats. But hyperactivity is not one of them.

If you believe you or your child are overly hyperactive, and the behavior is disrupting life, don’t operate under the false assumption that limiting sugar is going to help improve the behavior. In these cases it’s best to seek the help of a mental health professional.

Marily O.

MS, RD, PhD

YAY!

Sources:

The study that deceived mothers:

Hoover, D.W., & Milich, R. (1994). Effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactions. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 22(4), 501-515.

Good reviews and meta-analyses:

Millichap, J.G., & Yee, M.M. (2012). The diet factor in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Pediatrics, 129(2), 330-337.

Benton, D. (2008). The influence of children’s diet on their cognition and behavior. European Journal of Nutrition, 47, S25-37.

Wolraich, M.L., Wilson, D.B., White, J.W. (1995). The effect of sugar on behavior or cognition in children: A meta-analysis. JAMA, 274(20), 1617-1621.

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7 responses

  1. excellent! i think what happened to me was the simple one. the kids got sugar, and hyperactivity was expected, and since kids ARE hyper….

  2. This last part: “If you believe you or your child are overly hyperactive, and the behavior is disrupting life, don’t operate under the false assumption that limiting sugar is going to help improve the behavior. In these cases it’s best to seek the help of a mental health professional.”

    It seems that you’ve limited this statement to the “overly disruptive” and “disturbing life” spectrum of cases. What about less extreme scenarios? Such as, would a high sugar diet EVER affect child hyperactivity? What about “raised energy levels”? What about the trusted parental advice of “no sugar before bedtime”? Is this still sound parental rules to be followed?

    And, I’m concerned about signing my child up for mood altering-drugs. If the decision is made to see a mental health professional, does that mean I have to resign myself to this prescription that I don’t want for my child, or will a mental health professional ever recommend a modified diet as a solution instead?

    • Hi, Mr. Saccharin :). Thanks so much for the thoughtful questions! I’ll do my best to address them.
      1. You are right, the last paragraph suggested a mental health professional for people with extreme cases of disrupting hyperactivity. In these cases, not every mental health professional will prescribe drugs. There are a lot of great cognitive behavioral specialists that work with kids and adults on improving focus and attention and looking at underlying causes of disruptive behavior. (This is out of my scope of expertise, so I won’t go into detail.) But also, in cases where medication is prescribed, it’s not the “mood-altering drug” you mentioned, or what most people may think of when they hear “mood-altering drug” :). It’s more of a medication that balances out abnormal neurotransmitter levels, than a “whoa, trip out, this feels awesome, dude” drug. But if medication is not your answer, then other behavioral and cognitive means are also effective and available, depending on the extent of the problem and the particular diagnosis.

      2. As far as a mental health professional recommending a modified diet as a solution, I would refer you to my first post about seeking out a registered dietitian to help guide you in dietary choices. RDs have had years of training in precisely nutrition and metabolism, and most MDs programs barely have one introductory course in nutrition. That’s not to say that your Dr. knows nothing about it, s/he very well may. But I would encourage you to always back up any nutrition recommendations with an RD, if you can.

      3. (Sorry I’m out of order in answering your questions ;)!) You say: “What about the trusted parental advice of “no sugar before bedtime”? Is this still sound parental rules to be followed?”
      Don’t get in a fight with your parents / wife / self over this blog. If Grandma tells you not to give your rugrats sugar before bed, heed her wisdom instead of slapping her with research articles telling her she’s unfounded. That being said, there’s no evidence that sugar makes kids hyper or alters their behavior. But, remember about the other things that may go along with sugar, and these seemingly arbitrary correlates may indeed be the culprits! If they view the sugar as a treat, they may get excited! For example, when I come over close to bedtime to play with my nephews, they start bouncing off the walls. You may say I increase hyperactivity. But it’s sort of just the “Yay! Fun! Something new!” or “Hooray! A cupcake that looks like Cookie Monster! I am so excited, I will bounce around!” rather than anything in their brain getting affected by the ingredients. (And PS- That is precisely why I am not allowed over at my nephews’ after 7:30 on a school night ;)!)

      Thank you so much, Joe, for your thoughtful questions! I hope this addressed them…let me know if you have more questions!

      Best,
      Marily O.

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