After bringing home their colorful, sugar-laden bounty from a successful night of Trick or Treat, millions of American children will spend the coming weeks locked in a battle of wills with their parents over how much of the spoils they are allowed to enjoy, and how often they’ll have access to it. One of the most common strategies parents employ, based upon a supposed connection between sugar and hyperactivity, will ensure that parents lose that battle…at least, in a scientific sense.
When kids are “bouncing off the walls,” it’s not uncommon to hear parents call a temporary halt to all sugar consumption in an effort to save their sanity. One of the most pervasive myths in parenting, the belief that sugar promotes hyperactivity, this connection is solidified in the minds of millions of parents (Ghanizadeh & Zarei, 2010), reinforced at Halloween by one of the most persuasive types of evidence: their own children’s behavior. But, as we skeptics know, personal experience isn’t always the best indicator of reality. Let’s take a closer look at the claimed connection between sugar and hyperactivity, and see if it’s really so clear-cut.
Although the link between food and behavior has a long history, it became especially popular after the 1973 publication of the Feingold Diet, a dietary regimen promoted by an allergist named Benjamin Feingold, M.D. In it, he warned parents of hyperactive children to avoid foods with artificial colorings and flavorings, as well as salicylates (salts and esters of salicylic acid). Although it wasn’t specifically implicated, it makes sense that sugar was next on the chopping block, given kids’ almost universal obsession with the stuff. A 1978 study by Langseth and Dowd, published in the journal Food and Cosmetics Toxicology, reported that children diagnosed with hyperkinetic symptoms were significantly more likely to test positive for reactive hypoglycemia (aka, low blood sugar). Thus was born the “scientific” basis of hyperactivity and sugar in all children.
In the years since, and given the almost ubiquitous nature of this belief, surprisingly few studies have investigated the connection scientifically. Over the years, a handful of well designed studies has examined sugar and children’s behavior, however. The results are clear. Despite careful measurement of the amount of sugar given to each child, the use of a placebo (e.g., sugar-free candy), and double-blind procedures (i.e., no one involved knew which children were given real sugar until after the data were collected), NO CONNECTION between sugar and hyperactivity has been found (Wolraich, Wilson, & White, 1995).
In fact, although obesity and tooth decay are serious concerns, depriving children of all sugar may actually be detrimental to their normal growth and functioning. Flora and Polenick (2013) warn that, “for behavior and academic problems, limiting sugar consumption should not be a treatment focus and may be counterproductive” (p. 513).
So the lesson here is threefold. First, good parenting requires the monitoring of your child’s diet to ensure healthy, well-balanced meals. Second, medical conditions notwithstanding, a sugary treat now and then isn’t likely to make a difference in your child’s overall health. And third, if your child is particularly excitable around candy, it’s probably because she’s excited about candy, not due to any behavioral effects of the sugar she’s eating.
Flora, S. R. & Polenick, C. A. (2013). Effects of sugar consumption on human behavior and performance. The Psychological Record, 63, 513-524.
Ghanizadeh , A., & Zarei , N. (2010). Are GPs adequately equipped with the knowledge for educating and counseling of families with ADHD children? BMC FamilyPractice, 11, 1–5.
Langseth, L., & Dowd, J. (1978). Glucose tolerance and hyperkinesis. Food and Cosmetics Toxicology, 16, 129–133.
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.