The Myth of the Sugar-hyped Children

I was talking with a work colleague the other day and, as parents, we inevitably ended up talking about our kids as we have nothing else much going on. Her’s had recently been out with grandparents and came back dosed up with fatty foods and sugary drinks. There’s no point asking them to give them something healthy to eat, that’s not what grandparents are for.

My colleague said that she always hates it when this happens because the sugar gets them all hyped up. I was pretty sure I had heard somewhere that this is actually an urban myth and that filling a child with sugar no more hypes them up than does a plate of broccoli. My colleague had heard something similar but insisted, ‘I don’t care what they say, it definitely hypes my ones up.’

I left it there and made a mental note to do some digging.

It turns out that far from hyping up a child and changing their behaviour, it is actually the attitude and behaviour of the parent that changes when a child eats a load of sugar. This has been quite extensively and well studied and there really isn’t any wriggle room on it: sugary foods and drinks do not make children hyper.

First of all, let’s consider metabolism. If blood sugar levels go up then very quickly your body will start to produce insulin and any excess sugar is quickly turned into fat. Unless you’re diabetic there really isn’t a mechanism by which excess sugar can stay in the body to have any kind of interaction with behaviour.

One of the first studies done involved putting children on special diets that involved high amounts of either sucrose, an actual sugar, or aspartame or saccharine, sweeteners that don’t contain sugar. There was no difference in the behaviour of any of the groups of children. Multiple studies have since backed this up. What is going on here, then, is a very compelling example of confirmation bias.

Another study showed that if you have a bunch of children at a party that contains no sugar, but you tell half of the parents that their child is being given large amounts of sugar then the parents start to behave differently. Those parents who believe their kid is eating their own bodyweight in sweets sit more closely to their child, watch them more intently and interact with them more to tell them to generally stop doing whatever it is they’re doing. Interestingly, the effect is only present in parents who already believe that there is a link between sugar and hyperactivity.

In a nutshell, if your child is overexcited at a party there is a good chance they have had a load of sugar at that party. But the sugar isn’t the causative agent here, it’s the party. Kids, science has shown, like parties. They find them exciting. The presence of sugar is a coincidence. If a parent has a preconceived notion of sugar and hyperactivity being linked, however, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to reinforce the false assumption.

The next time you find yourself at a kids party, then, give the kid a break and let them have some fun. Give yourself a doughnut.

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