Debunking the Sugar Rush: Why Sugar Doesn't Cause Hyperactivity

Written by Camilla Jessen

Feb.22 - 2024 10:34 PM CET

Despite popular belief, sugar doesn't actually make kids hyper. This myth, which took off in the 1970s, persists even though scientific evidence disproves it.

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The idea that sugar makes kids hyper got popular in the 1970s because of a book called "Why Your Child Is Hyperactive" by Ben Feingold. Feingold said that things like sugar could make kids more lively, but he didn't have much proof.

However, studies in 1994 and 1995 showed that sugar doesn't really make kids hyper.

"There is no association—none," says Mark Corkins from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Why We Still Believe the Myth

Even so, people still think sugar makes kids wild.

Corkins, who also teaches at the University of Tennessee, points out that kids often eat a lot of sugar at fun times like "Birthday parties, reunions, Christmas time, Thanksgiving," and during summer activities like swimming, BBQs, picnics, and beach days.

“When we look at the times that kids have high sugar intake, it’s usually associated with when they’re going to be hyper, even if you didn’t give them any sugar,” he explains.

It seems that the real buzz for kids comes from the joy of being around family and friends during special occasions, not from sugar.

Understanding Sugar

Diana Schnee, a dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, has seen what some call "sugar rushes" in kids.

But, she says, “there are a lot of things that can explain kids’ hyperactivity and change in emotions. One of them being that they’re children, and that’s a very typical thing.” Eating too many refined carbs can cause issues that might change how a child acts, and not eating enough fruits or veggies can make them feel uncomfortable or moody.

Mark Corkins breaks down sugar into two types: natural and added. You find natural sugars in things like carrots, fruits, and milk. Corkins says kids don't have to limit these natural sugars. But added sugars, like those in junk food, are what parents need to watch out for because they can lead to health problems like obesity and heart disease.

The CDC says that sweets and sugary drinks are big sources of these added sugars. For little kids under two, the American Academy of Pediatrics says they shouldn't have any added sugars. And for kids older than two, they recommend keeping it under 25 grams a day.

Given that a single can of Coca-Cola has 39 grams of sugar, keeping an eye on how much sugar kids get is really important for keeping them healthy.

Sweet Tooth

Worried your kid is eating too much sugar?

Mark Corkins mentions, “Most kids are getting more than that,” talking about how much sugar kids usually eat compared to what's recommended. Luckily, thanks to changes in U.S. food labels, it's easier for parents to see how much added sugar is in everything from drinks to snacks.

Diana Schnee reassures, “Sugar itself isn't necessarily terrible if it's consumed in small quantities infrequently.”

"So I'm not really concerned about the occasional piece of birthday cake or the Thanksgiving pie. I'm more concerned about sugar in a kid's diet on a regular basis.”

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