DOES SUGAR MAKE KIDS HYPER? HERE'S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
January 13, 2022
“Bouncing off the walls” and “stir crazy” are just a few of the common phrases that come to mind when we think about hyper kids. Even without the added effect of any dietary stimulants, kids are prone to getting a little cabin fever - especially during cold months. Sometimes they just need to let their energy out, and boy do they have a lot of it!
Naturally, many parents assume that there is a direct correlation between what a child is eating and how they are behaving, including their level of emotional control and hyperactivity. It’s also assumed that by incorporating a strict, balanced diet with little to no added sugar, kids will largely skip the unpredictable hyperactive episodes and tantrum-level meltdowns.
As badly as parents want their kids to have a balanced diet, it’s almost impossible to avoid sugary foods altogether. Once kids start to recognize words like “snack,” “cookie,” and “ice cream,” all bets are off for getting them to eat broccoli before getting their favorite treat. After their first few bites of a sweet snack, kids are bound to start clamoring for more.
Even if you manage to keep sugar to a minimum, you might still be wondering if there’s any link between sugar and hyperactivity.
So, does sugar make kids hyper? That’s the question we’ll answer in this article, and we’ll do so by reviewing in-depth exactly how sugar affects a child’s body, what you can do to counteract the effects of sugar, and why experts recommend keeping sugar to a minimum no matter how picky your little eaters are.
Ready to learn more about the connection between sugar and hyperactivity? Let’s get started!
The Connection Between Sugar and Hyperactivity
Despite all of the stories that parents can tell about how they’re absolutely positive there’s a link between sugar and hyperactivity, it’s best to start by looking at the research.
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), the research doesn’t really show a discernable connection between sugar intake and significant behavioral deviations (e.g., differences) when studied among controlled groups of children. There are 2 commonly cited studies, both completed in the 1990s, that seem to debunk claims of the relationship between sugar and hyperactivity.
The first study, published in 1994, involved researchers who gave kids (some of whom were thought to be sugar sensitive) varying doses of different sugar types as part of their daily diet. The researchers then observed if the increase in sugar levels had any perceivable effect on 39 different behavioral and cognitive measures. Unable to produce a meaningful link between sugar and differences in the measured variables (when compared to no added sugar). the study concluded that increased dietary levels of sugar do not affect “children’s behavior or cognitive function.”
The second study, which occurred only 3 years earlier in 1991, looked at a slightly different question: does sugar exacerbate the tendency for children (with attention deficit disorders and without any known issues) to either act aggressively or struggle to pay attention? Again, the results might surprise parents: “controlled studies have failed to confirm any effect on hyperactivity and effects on inattention have been equivocal.”
Interestingly, though, this second study did find that specific types of diets could be part of the reason that sugar did not produce observable differences in behavior.
Ok, so the connection between sugar and observable behavioral changes in children appears to be, despite strong anecdotal evidence to the contrary, a myth! However, this does not mean that sugar is not a big deal and something to be avoided as part of a normal diet. The reasons for limiting sugar are just a little bit different than what most parents tend to think.
We’ll talk about these other reasons later on, but let’s first look at other reasons why kids might be hyperactive, and why sugar might be perceived as the culprit.
Other Causes of Hyperactivity in Kids
Parents sometimes attribute hyperactivity to sugar when it’s actually a result of other food that’s missing from the dietary plan or daily routine. In other cases, it might be physiological factors that are the primary cause of a child’s hyperactive behavior. These factors might include any of the following:
- Excitement to see friends and family (e.g. at a holiday party, where sugar is usually present everywhere).
- Missing a nap time or simple exhaustion.
- Poorly balanced diet overall.
- Physical pain caused by teething, growing aches, a bodily injury, etc.
- An especially temperamental phase.
- Legitimate disorders or impairments affecting a child’s ability to socialize, pay attention, or learn.
This might be a little bit hard to understand, but your perception that your kids are more hyper after eating sugar might also be simply that: a perception. Some doctors note that parents expect their kids to act a little crazier after eating a lot of sugar, so they interpret anything other than normal behavior as “sugar-induced” hyperactivity.
Why Avoiding Sugar is Best, When Done Right
Nutritional and behavioral experts tend to share the opinion that making sweets a reward for good behavior puts a lot of psychological weight behind the perception that sugar is also good, even though it’s limited. Reinforcing this concept may give your child some trouble later in life when they start to make their own dietary decisions and they continually seek sugar as a reward for goals or good behavior.
Instead, try to completely separate the idea of behavior and sugary rewards. On a similar note, don’t inflate the idea of sugar as something extra special if you want to help teach your kids healthy, self-imposed limits. Taking the stigma from sugar is one of the best ways to present a more balanced emotional view on the whole topic of diet and nutrition.
Other Good Reasons to Keep Sugar to a Minimum
So we may have debunked (as much as possible) the idea that sugar and hyperactivity are linked in any meaningful way. But, there are many other valid, medically-backed reasons to keep sugar out of sight, and out of mind.
Here’s just a shortlist of some of the negative effects sugar can have on your children:
- Sugar wreaks havoc on teeth. In fact, it’s the leading cause of cavities for children.
- Children who eat more than the recommended amount of sugar are at a much higher risk of obesity.
- Heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and other negative side effects are much more likely to occur when sugar levels are high. When dietary issues start at a young age, they only compound later in life, and they are much harder to stop than when your kids are only a few years old. This is especially true because sugar is extremely addictive once it becomes part of a regular diet.
- Sugar is known to suppress healthy immune activity, making your children more susceptible to illness.
- Excessive sugar consumption can even cause harm to regular digestive functions, including bowel movements - some of this damage can be long-term.
- Skin issues are common with small children, and sugar is a big culprit when determining the cause of bad skin.
Remember that basically all of these effects are also true for adults - so parents and children both benefit big time from limiting sugar in their daily diet. The whole family can help in the journey to eliminate sugary foods from everyday consumption.
The Best Diet, According to Nutritional Experts
Give your kids the best shot at avoiding any real or perceived attitude disruptions and behavior outbursts by ensuring that you’ve generally deemphasized the importance of sugar (removing its motivational power), and by also adding other items to your children’s diets that will keep their blood sugar balanced and counteract those crazy mood swings.
According to nutritional experts, this means that you should focus on getting your kids to eat food like the following:
- Healthy fats.
- Whole grains.
Though it might be easier to reach for a pre-packaged snack, it’s easier to avoid sugar and ensure a more well-rounded diet when you prepare food at home. This doesn’t mean that you need to spend hours cooking every day. Most snack and meal options that your kids will like can be thrown together in just a few minutes before they head off to school or you leave for work.
Here are some ideas from nutritional experts on snacks you can make at home that will provide energy without disrupting your kid’s system:
- Apples and peanut butter
- Raw veggies and hummus.
- Cheese sticks and crackers.
- Trail mix or a similar mixture of nuts, raisins, dried fruit, and dehydrated yogurt bites.
- Fruit or yogurt pouches.
Obviously, these options may require your child to be familiar with certain flavors and textures, and able to chew sufficiently.
Sugar May Not Look Like Sugar
Just because a food item appears to be low sugar, that doesn’t mean it is. Take a little bit of extra time when you’re grocery shopping to read the label and spot common sugars that are frequently added to food to extend its shelf life, sweeten the overall flavor, and function as a general additive. Without even realizing it, you might be stocking your pantry with regularly eaten snack foods containing 20+ grams of sugar per serving.
How does this happen so easily? Food manufacturers have gotten really good at using alternative names for what is, essentially, sugar. This is partly a marketing effort to say things like “natural sugar only,” and it's also just an easy way to get consumers to gloss over the ingredients and be satisfied with the total sugar content without checking other ingredients.
It takes a little bit of learning and a keen eye to know exactly what should stand out when you’re reading nutritional information. If you’re worried about spotting sugar by one of its other names, here’s what you should look for, according to Healthline:
- Barley malt
- Beet sugar
- Brown sugar
- Buttered sugar
- Cane juice crystals
- Cane sugar
- Caster sugar
- Coconut sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Crystalline fructose
- Date sugar
- Dextran, malt powder
- Ethyl maltol
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Golden sugar
- Invert sugar
- Muscovado sugar
- Palm sugar
- Organic raw sugar
- Rapadura sugar
- Evaporated cane juice
- Confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
- Agave nectar
- Carob syrup
- Golden syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Oat syrup
- Rice bran syrup
- Rice syrup
Sugary drinks are one of the most significant ways that children get sugary in their daily diet. Juice is probably the most common culprit because it can be remarkably high in sugar, though most parents don’t think twice about offering juice instead of water on a daily basis. The problem is that kids quickly start to prefer juice or other sugary drinks over water.
I know how hard that switch can be! For example, when you’re kids are sick, sometimes the only thing they’ll drink is juice mixed with a little bit of water. Because you just want them to stay hydrated, you’re willing to keep the juice flowing until they aren’t sick anymore. But, by that point, your kids really liking having juice all day.
However, pediatric experts recommend limiting juice to only about 4-8 ounces per day, depending on the age of your child.
Maybe you feel a little relieved that sugar doesn’t necessarily cause hyperactivity in kids, or maybe you’re still wishing that you had that excuse. Either way, we’ve covered a lot of reasons that sugar should be avoided, and what you should look for when creating a more balanced diet - including how to find sugar when you’re filling your grocery cart.
It’s important to reiterate that you shouldn’t feel the need to avoid all sugar, all the time. Baking homemade cookies and enjoying birthday cake is a critical part of any childhood, and no one should be deprived of great memories and sweets!
Achieving a healthy balance is all about moderation, having a plan in place for keeping healthy snacks at hand, and knowing the potential triggers for your child.