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        Wild Child: Is Sugar the Culprit?


Megan Capozzi

October 24, 2008




It is apparent that the use of sugar in diet has become controversial with many health issues coming to the forefront. Diabetes and obesity epidemics are very noticeable and are spreading to younger age groups than ever seen before. Though there is an undoubted link of diet with the previously mentioned health problems, one contested issue with a vast amount of gray area is the effect of sugar on hyperactive behavior in children. Hyperactivity can be classified as increased temperament, emotional disturbances, learning disorders (such as ADHD), and sleep problems. With many recent studies producing conflicting points of views with parents that swear they witness a “sugar high”, the public has been stuck without a completely definitive answer. However, the most recent research has provided a resounding response that will prevent parents from having to restructure their child’s diet ( Though it is clear that sugar is not a beneficial substance towards health goals, in moderation it can still keep a place in a diet. The following defines each side of the sugar-hyperactivity argument, utilizing previous research and anecdotal claims from parents to determine if sugar is really is to blame.



Sugar as a Poison


Just about any parent could relate sugar intake such as through cake or soft drinks as a cause for a hyperactive behavior in their child. This link between diet and behavior was first noted by Feingold (1973) in which he attributed hyperactive behavior to food additives, one of which being sugar. From this point on, many physicians suggested a low-sugar diet, not only to combat tooth decay but to reduce wild behavior.

Another reason that there are negative effects on behavior related to sugar is due to studies in mice. Researchers have found that yeast (candida albicans), which develops in the gastrointestinal tract, is 200 times more likely to develop in children that eat higher sugar diets than low sugar diets. The presence of this yeast causes greater bloodstream permeability, releasing undigested food into the bloodstream. The body’s reaction to combat this result is hyperactivity (

            In Appleton’s article, cited above, she also explains the linkage made between academic performance and diet. She sites another author, Alexander Shauss, who makes a case for negative grade correlation with increased sugar intake in his book Diet, Crime and Delinquency. Using further investigation they used a revision to school lunches through four years of the 1980’s to track the behavior changes linked to sugar. With the reduction of sugars, as well as fats and additives, they found that test scores of all schools tested in those four years were increased from below the national average by about 5% to above the national average by about 10%.

            Also according to the above article, a proposed treatment of complete sugar removal for at least ten days is made to relieve the following symptoms:

·         Difficulty falling asleep

·           Difficulty concentrating

·         Low grades in school

·           Allergies

·         Frequent Headaches

·           Hyperactivity

·         Overweight

·           Need for many dental fillings

·         Needs to eat within 4 hours of a meal

·           Colds/ infections more than once a year

            Appleton states that we can train ourselves to be allergic to wheat and milk through conditioning with sugar, however there was no other scientific basis found to this claim.

            The proposed mechanism for sugar’s creation of hyperactivity with a subsequent behavioral crash relates to the release of insulin. When blood-sugar levels get high, insulin is produced to clear out the blood. Insulin is fast acting and if a lot is made due to high sugar intake there will be an entire flush of the blood-sugar creating the symptoms of shakiness or sluggishness. This creates a cycle of high and low blood-sugar that causes the child to alter mood (Snyder).

            Sugar can also be considered a dieting poison in a way that works opposite of the claim for hyperactivity. Three of the most common relations with sugar are obesity, type II diabetes, and dental cavities. All of these have sound scientific support because sugar has a high caloric value found in a diet that leads to obesity, it raises the insulin levels that relates to type II diabetes, and it is known to affect teeth. A sedentary lifestyle, as opposed to hyperactivity, is most correlated with obesity.



Behaviorally Harmless


            “Sugar-free diets have no place in the management of children with these [hyperactive] conditions” (

Most of the current studies on sugar show that sugar has no effect on hyperactivity, and if used moderately in the diet can have a beneficial response (,1510,4126,00.html). The medical field is generally in agreement that sugar does not affect behavior, which often goes against the parental anecdotal evidence. There is clear reasoning for parents’ belief that sugar does have adverse behavior effects. Sugar intake is often closely linked to environment and expectations of the parents which helps to formulate these beliefs. Most often sugary snacks, such as cake or soft drinks, are given to kids in a party or social atmosphere that can cause the high behavioral activity. Also, there has been a correlation between sugar and behavior due to a parent’s self-fulfilling prophecy. They tend to view a child’s behavior as out of control only because they thought it would be due to increased sugar intake. This has been tested using a placebo comparison ( Also, sugar often confounds with other substances that do alter behaviour, such as with caffeine in a soft drink.

            Sugar relates to three interdependent relations in the body; blood sugar, serotonin, and beta-endorphin levels. Insulin is the result of high blood sugar. Some experiments have shown that insulin only plays a behavioral role when extreme amounts of sugar are ingested. Insulin kicks in strongly if a lot of sugar is present in the diet and causes the high and crash as previously noted. Serotonin is a neurochemical that actually is known to quiet the brain. It is often talked about in regards to stress, because low levels can cause depression and overwhelming feelings. Sugar can actually cause some increases creating feelings of well-being and peacefulness. Lastly, beta-endorphins are “the brain’s own pain killer.” In children that are very sugar sensitive, there are lower levels of Beta-endorphins which can cause greater issues with physical and emotional pain. However, with normal children, beta-endorphins do not experience a strong change due to sugar (

            Moderation is the key when incorporating sugar into a child’s diet. There have been studies that sugar cravings are a learned behavior and therefore intake should be limited to prevent adverse health problems outside hyperactivity. Sugars calming effects can actually be beneficial, giving justice to the phrase “a spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down.” In babies, a half teaspoon of sugar added to an ounce of water can have extreme calming effects.



What the Scientists Say


            Many studies have been published since the Feingold diet in 1973. Multiple experiments have provided the public with a resounding answer that no, sugar is not to blame for your child’s hyperactive behavior. These studies use large samples and thorough research criteria to justify answers to the lingering questions of parents.

            Hoover and Milich (1994) wanted to test if it was truly behavior that was changing or if it was merely parent’s expectancies when children ate a high sugar content diet. Their method involved telling mothers that their children had just received large doses of sugar even though they had not actually been administered sucrose. From there, parents were to report using a rating scale to test hyperactivity. Mothers who were told their child had received the sugar consistently reported their children as having higher activity in comparison to their own baseline as well as compared to other parents who had not been told their children received sucrose. This study gave truth to the idea that expectancies played a major role in the sugar myth.

            Further research took on the challenge of testing sucrose and aspartame effects by comparing them to saccharin as a placebo. It was found that “even when intake exceeds typical dietary levels, neither dietary sucrose nor aspartame affects children’s behavior or cognitive function” (Murray 1994).

The article from Nutrition Reviews adds more specific research to Murray’s observations. First, a study was done to test the initial proposal that sugar played a role with ADHD (Prinz 1991). Using a rating system he had devised to measure movement, restlessness, and destructive-aggressive acts, behavior was gauged in comparison with a high and low sugar diet. After distributing the meal plan, it was found that there was a correlation with sugar causing greater activity in children with ADHD, but not any correlation in normal children. However, Nutrition Reviews also mentions a study in which data was collected with various levels of sugar and multiple sweeteners such as aspartame (Wolraich 1994). The levels were compared to a placebo, saccharin. This study was carried out very well, administering a variety of diets and implementing a double blind system. The study had all other foods taken out of the 48 tested households, involved the use of a journal to track what was eaten, and utilized the input of teachers and parents to aid in tracking. This result produced the clear response that sugar has no effect on behavior. In a similar study by Brown & Fox (1999), it was found that the only effects were on nutritious value (empty calories) and tooth decay. Neither sucrose nor aspartame affected concentration or behavior.

            The most conclusive results can be seen in a meta-analysis performed by Wolraich, Wilson, and White (1995) from Vanderbilt University. They compiled a total of 23 within-subject design studies using strong inclusion factors. These included that specific sugar quantities had to be stated in the intervention, an artificial sweetener was to be used as a placebo, the experiment was run blindly, and the report had to have measures with significant computations. The result was the definite finding that sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children.




            There is major conflicting information present to parents on the effects of sugar on behavior, in particular hyperactivity. Sugar can be viewed in two ways, negative or neutral, but never entirely positive due to its presence with health problems including obesity, type II diabetes, and dental problems (cavities). Sugar is not something that can be plausibly removed entirely from the diet, but should be added for energy and in moderation because it is a source of empty calories.

            Parents generally believe that the sugary soft drink or large chocolate chip cookie is what is sending their child off the wall. Studies in mice confirm that an increase in yeast production can cause gastrointestinal permeability that creates hyperactivity. Also, books can be cited that relate lowered academic performance with increased sugar intake. Diets exist to reduce and even abolish the use of sugar in diet for these reasons and many other adverse health affects.

            This data has been contested by clear and well devised studies that have proven that it in fact is not the sugar that is creating the so-called high. Instead, behavior is often correlated to the environment in which the sugar is administered and the parent’s expectancies of behavior based on the ingestion of sugar. The evidence shows no correlation with the hyperactive behavior and sugar, presented through numerous rating classifications, food diaries, and the control vs. experimental diet interventions


Though parents still tend to believe that their kids are on a high after that piece of cake, there is now definitive data that proves this thought a myth. The sugar confound with environment and expectations makes the idea of hyperactivity by diet seem plausible, however this is clearly not the case. I believe the treatment of complete sugar removal seems ridiculous because many of those problems are rooted in other issues that may relate to sugar, but it is not the physical substance that is causing the problem. In general, moderation is key to prevent the actual negative health problems. In conclusion, sugar does not cause hyperactivity in almost every case.






Appleton, N. (2007, July 14). Children's Sugar Intake. Retrieved Oct. 9, 2008, from


Brown, Bryan, Fox, Jonathan. (1999, March). Myth-buster: Does sugar make you hyper? Scholastic Choices, 14(6), 4.  Retrieved October 10, 2008, from Children's Module database. (Document ID: 39155282).


Does sucrose or aspartame cause hyperactivity in children? (1994). Nutrition Reviews, 52(5), 173.  Retrieved October 9, 2008, from Research Library Core database. (Document ID: 5257729).


Feingold Diet. (n.d.). Retrieved Oct. 10, 2008, from


Havala Hobbs, S. (2007, Oct. 25). | Sugar isn't why kids raise Cain. Retrieved Oct. 9, 2008, from


Hoover, Daniel W,  Milich, Richard. (1994). Effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactionsJournal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 22(4), 501.  Retrieved October 9, 2008, from Research Library Core database. (Document ID: 5746687).


Murray, Frank (1994, May). Does sugar consumption lead to hyperactivity? Better Nutrition for Today's Living, 56(5), 6.  Retrieved October 10, 2008, from Health Module database. (Document ID: 5797902).


Needleman, R. (2002, February 25). Does Sugar Make Children Hyper?. Retrieved Oct. 9, 2008, from,1510,4126,00.html.


Regalado, M. (2005, January 30). Busting the Sugar-Hyperactivity Myth. Retrieved Oct. 9, 2008, from


Rudis, J. (n.d.). True or False: Eating Sugar Tends to Make Children Hyperactive. Retrieved Oct. 9, 2008, from


Scott, H. (n.d.). Kids and Sugar: Sugar and Children's Behavior - Retrieved Oct. 9, 2008, from


Snyder Sachs, J. (n.d.). Sugar: Does It Really Make Kids Hyper?. Retrieved Oct. 9, 2008, from


Wolraich, M., Wilson, D., & White, J. (1995). The effect of sugar on behavior or cognition in children. A meta-analysis.. JAMA, 274(20), 1617-21. Retrieved Oct. 10, 2008, from the PubMed database.



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