Anyone else still nursing their kids’ Halloween candy hangovers?
In anticipation of my boys’ bouncing off the walls and regularly throwing tantrums over how many chocolate bars and lollipops they can eat every day from the remaining trick-or-treat stash, I decided to investigate the persistent refrain that sugar makes children behave like unhinged lunatics.
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.”
Horn adds that while sugar may not be the direct cause of a kid’s sugar high, it might play a part in the crash that often follows. Refined treats such as ice cream and candy lead to a bigger, faster drop in blood sugar than other foods do, and this decline can result in mood or behavior issues. Still, Horn advises parents “to look at other things that are happening” around kids “that may also be contributing to hyperactivity” — for example, that rousing game of whack-the-pinata, a skipped nap, an abnormally late bedtime, etc.
In addition, some experts have speculated that other ingredients in candy and sugary snacks, such as food dyes, artificial preservatives and other additives, may also play a role in hyperactivity, especially for certain children. Published research shows “some hints that there are some small, specific subgroups of kids who are particularly sensitive to sugar or food additives,” says King, noting that food allergies or intolerances may play a role.
If your son or daughter falls into this category, there’s no harm in trying a sugar- or additive-free diet, counsels Horn. “If you feel like it makes a difference, please, by all means try it, because kids get way too much sugar, for the most part,” she says, noting that while sugar may not directly cause hyperactivity, it obviously isn’t good for you, playing a role in increased risk of cavities and other oral health issues, as well as weight gain and obesity.
If you’re not ready to ditch sweets entirely but still can’t shake the feeling that it drives your children berserk, simply try looking at that next party-induced meltdown in a different way, suggests Horn. “If you have a very balanced diet for your kid, where they’re not getting sugar all the time and they do see sweets and candy as a treat, then it makes sense that they will be excited to get them on a special occasion — just like kids get excited when they get a new toy — and that’s not a bad thing,” she explains.
“To me, when sugar is something your kid is really excited about, it indicates that maybe you’re doing something right rather than [that] something went wrong. Parents should see that as ‘You know what, it’s great that my kid is excited about this,’ and value and appreciate the treat.”