I’m sure you have all heard the oft-repeated myth that giving your children sugar (or sugary treats) will cause them to become hyperactive. When I had kids, I believed that this was true.
But then I grew into the old feathered dinosaur, and I became much more skeptical of claims that seem to be widely accepted including sugar and hyperactivity in children. When I first thought of writing this article, I relied upon my education in glucose metabolism and insulin, and I started to realize that healthy humans, including children, have very complex and effective methods of controlling blood sugar. And hyperactivity is not one of those methods.
Lucky for me, there appears to be some solid science out there that does debunk this claim, as I did with sugar being as addictive as cocaine (it isn’t). And as I usually do, I’m going to review the scientific research in the area.
What is sugar?
This could be heavy science. But it helps understand what sugars are and do, instead of myths.
Before we can even start talking about what sugar may or may not do, we need to really talk about sugars. So, what exactly is sugar? For most people, it’s the white stuff on the table, and according to everything we hear today, it should be avoided. However, like most things, sugar is much more complicated than that.
There are two broad types of sugars, aldose and ketose, along with over twenty individual, naturally-found sugars, called monosaccharides. Of all of those sugars, only four play a significant role in human nutrition — glucose, fructose, galactose, and ribose (which has a very minor nutritional role, though a major one as the backbone of DNA and RNA). Got that? Four sugars are all we can absorb into the human body.
There are other monosaccharides found in nature that can be consumed, but they either just feed the gut flora or are enzymatically converted into one of the four basic sugars by the gut flora.
But here it gets a bit more complicated. Many monosaccharide sugars form disaccharides which are sugars made of two covalently bound monosaccharides.
Table sugar, the white stuff we put in our coffee, is called sucrose — a disaccharide made of one molecule of glucose bound to one molecule of fructose. Sucrose is also the main sugar in most other commercially purchased sugars that you find including brown sugar, molasses, beet sugar, and maple sugar.
Milk sugar is lactose, which is glucose and galactose, maltose is two glucose molecules, and there are a few dozen less common ones. Each has a slightly different taste, and some rare ones provide unique tastes in certain fruits and vegetables. But when these disaccharides enter the intestinal tract, they are quickly disassociated by water or acids plus enzymes into one of the simple monosaccharides that can be absorbed
So when you put sucrose in coffee and consume it, it will be broken down into two sugars that actually can be used by the body — glucose and fructose.
But we need to provide you with even more science (it’s not bad, I promise). We need to make this slightly more complicated.
Starches are also sugars. They are just long chains, or polymers, of individual sugars, almost always glucose. Cellulose, which is a major component of paper, wood, natural plant fibers, and many other items, is a glucose polymer. So are insect shells, in case you wanted to know.
Generally, these long-chain polysaccharides cannot be broken down by humans, though our intestinal flora can use them for food. In addition, bulk fiber, an important part of your diet for intestinal motility, is generally long chains of saccharides.
Since it’s one of the evil sugars, high-fructose corn syrup is just sugar — it is nothing more than glucose and fructose in water, barely different than pouring that white sugar you use in your coffee and putting it into water. It will break down into glucose and fructose.
So sugar is much more complicated than you might have thought. We haven’t gotten into hyperactivity yet, because I have to explain how sugar just doesn’t flow to your children’s nervous system and causes it to become hyperexcited. We need to tell you how healthy bodies deal with sugar.
Blood sugar regulation
Lots of science here, but diabetes is a complex disease. Oversimplifying it can make some people think that it’s simple to treat or even cure. I need to disabuse the reader of that belief if you have it.
The basic power source of our body is glucose, which is produced from almost anything we eat (carbohydrates, proteins, sugars, and fats). It is usually tightly regulated by the body, and when you have excess glucose in the blood, it is taken out of the blood and stored–but when the blood glucose drops, it is then released from storage to be used for energy.
The key hormone, insulin, which regulates the level of glucose in the body is released by the Beta cells of the Islets of Langerhans in the pancreas when blood sugar goes up–insulin induces storage cells to remove and store glucose from the blood. In a complex interaction, the hormone glucagon, produced by other cells in the pancreas when the blood glucose level is too low, induces the release of that stored glucose.
This happens over a period of minutes or an hour. If you consume a bunch of sugar, it’s not going to stay in your blood very long, because that causes other issues over the long term. And hyperactivity is not one of them.
This shows, once again, how complex living systems are, and simple explanations about the physiological processes in humans are laughable and should be dismissed. Moreover, glucose control in humans is a fascinating physiological system, and it’s remarkable that it works so well in 99% of people.
Sugar and hyperactive children — the science
Believe it or not, this myth had its origins in one published scientific article (which would probably be considered unethical today) from the 1970s. This study examined the effects of foods on the autistic behavior of ONE child. Sugar was considered one of the foods that caused disruptive behavior.
Those of you who are reading this are probably rolling your eyes. I did. But let’s get back to more modern science.
A meta-analysis (as you know, a type of study that is at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of medical research) published in JAMA reviewed 16 different studies on the links between sugar and hyperactivity, and they all came back with the same result — “sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children.”
If sugar does change something about the behavior of their children, it’s parental expectations of their children. Parents who were told their 5-7-year-old sons had ingested large amounts of sugar (when in fact they were given a placebo) were more inclined to rate their children as significantly more hyperactive than mothers who were told their children received the placebo. Often if a parent believes there is a link between sugar and hyperactivity in their children, they will see one.
This is a perfect example of the post hoc fallacy — children tend to consume large amounts of sugar at parties, holidays, or a visit to grandma’s house. These are also places where the children tend to have a lot of excitement and fun along with more relaxed rules on behavior. Parents are conflating the correlation, that is, lots of hyperactive behavior after eating a huge slice of birthday cake with causation. The cause isn’t the sugar in the food, it’s probably the environment at that time.
Of course, then the parent forgets about all the times their children eat a large ice cream cone filled with sugar and they exhibit no hyperactive behavior.
A bit more science
Although it is clear that the link between one meal high in sugar and hyperactivity doesn’t exist, there is some research that indicates a diet (which would mean more than one high-sugar meal) that was high in sugar and fats might lead to hyperactivity disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of Affective Disorders concluded that “a diet high in refined sugar and saturated fat can increase the risk, whereas a healthy diet, characterized by high consumption of fruits and vegetables, would protect against ADHD or hyperactivity.”
One meal of sugar isn’t going to cause hyperactivity in your children. However, there seems to be compelling evidence that a diet high in sugar over time may lead to ADHD. Of course, a diet high in sugar over time may lead to a large number of health issues.
I think we have thoroughly debunked the myth that eating sugar causes hyperactive children. It’s probably more of a correlation that has a lot of confounding factors (like a birthday party which is just a fun time for kids) rather than causation. Just refer the next parent who makes that claim to this article.
- Del-Ponte B, Quinte GC, Cruz S, Grellert M, Santos IS. Dietary patterns and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Affect Disord. 2019 Jun 1;252:160-173. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2019.04.061. Epub 2019 Apr 10. PMID: 30986731.
- Hoover DW, Milich R. Effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactions. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 1994 Aug;22(4):501-15. doi: 10.1007/BF02168088. PMID: 7963081.
- O’Banion D, Armstrong B, Cummings RA, Stange J. Disruptive behavior: a dietary approach. J Autism Child Schizophr. 1978 Sep;8(3):325-37. doi: 10.1007/BF01539635. PMID: 690067.
- Wolraich ML, Wilson DB, White JW. The effect of sugar on behavior or cognition in children. A meta-analysis. JAMA. 1995 Nov 22-29;274(20):1617-21. doi: 10.1001/jama.1995.03530200053037. PMID: 7474248.