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Is it true that eating lots of sugar causes hyperactivity in kids?

Parents long have blamed their children’s “bouncing off the wall” behavior on eating too much sugar, but experts say there’s no truth to it. “It’s a myth that sugar causes hyperactivity,” says Mark Wolraich, professor emeritus in developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. Yet, he acknowledges, “it’s still a strong belief. … Sometimes it’s very hard to change embedded impressions of what affects behavior.”

Wolraich conducted studies in the 1990s that disproved the notion that sugar causes attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. These included a double-blind randomized controlled trial that found that neither sugar nor the artificial sweetener aspartame affected behavior or cognitive function among children whose parents perceived them as high energy “sugar sensitive,” compared with those with “normal” behavior, even when sugar intake exceeded typical dietary levels.

“It was pretty definitive,” Wolraich says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also states that sugar doesn’t make kids hyper, saying “research doesn’t support the popularly held views that ADHD is caused by eating too much sugar, watching too much television, parenting, or social and environmental factors such as poverty or family chaos.”

Parents probably continue to make this association because children tend to become overly excited during specific events — birthday parties, for example — when the menu contains high-sugar items, such as ice cream, birthday cake and goody bags.

Also, “kids tend to get a lot of sugar around the holidays, when there are other things that rev them up,” Wolraich says. “So it looks like they are getting overactive when they are eating a lot of sugary foods.”

How did this belief start?

Some experts trace its origins to 1973, when allergist Benjamin Feingold linked children’s hyperactivity to ingesting artificial food colors; additives; preservatives; and salicylates, substances found in plants and foods and also used in many medicines, such as aspirin. He also wrote a popular book on the topic.

Although sugar was not among the dietary culprits Feingold criticized, many parents mistakenly made the connection, since high amounts of sugar go hand in hand with foods containing dyes and other additives.

In recent years, studies have connected several artificial dyes, including red dye No. 3, to hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in children. A 2021 report by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment concluded that some children who consume food dyes exhibit these health effects, although sensitivity to them varies among children.

What else you should know

Even though sugar is absolved in this one case, it doesn’t mean kids can eat it with abandon, experts warn.

“Sugar is not vindicated from other adverse health effects,” says Donald Hensrud, associate professor of nutrition and preventive medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine. “It provides extra calories and increases weight, contributing to obesity and possibly later heart disease. It can cause cavities. It has no nutrients and displaces other foods that do.”

So, what’s the bottom-line message to parents? “I don’t promote giving children a lot of sugar,” Wolraich says. “Sugar can be a negative factor in a balanced diet because its taste is so attractive. But sugar does not have a high nutritive value. So eating a lot of sugary foods that are low in other important dietary nutrients is not a good idea — but not because of hyperactivity.”

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