The truth, in the vast majority of cases, is no. That may come as a bit of a shock to those of us who have seen, with our very own eyes, a 6-year-old transform into a Tasmanian devil within minutes of eating a Twizzler or a birthday cupcake.
Parents often report that sugar gives kids “a shot of energy,” says Georgia-based pediatrician Jatinder Bhatia, chair of the Committee on Nutrition of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “And I feel like I’ve seen it myself,” he adds. “But if you look at the science . . . there isn’t any definitive literature showing that sugar will cause a child to be hyperactive.”
In fact, more than a dozen double-blind research trials on children’s diets
— both from candy and chocolate and from natural sources — has failed to find any behavioral differences between those young people who consume sugar and those who don’t. That’s even true for kids with an ADHD diagnosis.
So what’s actually going on?
For one thing, there may be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of parents. “We know that people’s beliefs and expectations going into a situation bias how they perceive things,” explains Tracy King, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. “If you believe that sugar influences your kid’s behavior, then you’re more likely to look for that behavior, and if you see it, you’re more likely to attribute it to sugar intake.”
Even King, who knows exactly what the research shows, admits that she’s fallen into this trap from time to time: “If I see my 7-year-old daughter is climbing off the walls, the first thing I do is think back to ‘What did she eat recently?’ and dessert or candy are the first things to come to mind.”
Indeed, in one older, oft-cited study, a group of mothers who labeled their children as “sugar sensitive” were split into two groups: Half were informed that their children were given sugary beverages, while the others were told they’d be having sugar-free drinks; in reality, all were given the same sugar-free placebo. Still, the moms who thought their children had consumed sugar rated kids’ behavior as significantly more hyperactive.
The connection between sugar and rambunctiousness isn’t just in parents’ heads, though, says pediatrician Ivor Horn of Children’s National Medical Center. She stresses that environmental and social factors surrounding sugar-centric events or holidays may also contribute to the madness and a general uptick in a child’s activity level.
“At Halloween or a birthday party, kids are just really, really excited,” she says. “If you take a kid to a party and you have cake and then you come home and they are all over the place, you might attribute it to all the junk they ate, but it may be that they’re just really excited about the fact they just came from a party with all their friends or family, or they’ve been really active at the party and now they’re tired, and that’s contributing to behavior.”