The theory of the “sugar high” has been debunked, yet the myth persists.
The notion that sugar might make children behave badly first appeared in the medical literature in 1922. But the idea did not capture the public’s imagination until Dr. Ben Feingold’s best-selling book, “Why Your Child Is Hyperactive,” was published in 1975.
In his book, Feingold describes the case of a boy who might well be “patient zero” for the putative connection between sugar and hyperactivity: “[The mother’s] fair-haired, wiry son loved soft drinks, candy and cake — not exactly abnormal for any healthy child. He also seemed to go completely wild after birthday parties and during family gatherings around holidays.”
In the mid-1970s, stimulant drugs such as Ritalin and amphetamine were becoming popular for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. For parents who were concerned about drug side effects, the possibility of controlling hyperactivity by eliminating sugar proved to be an enticing prospect.
Some studies supported the theory. They suggested that high sugar diets caused spikes in insulin secretion, which triggered adrenaline production and hyperactivity. But the data was weak and was soon questioned by other scientists.
An extraordinarily rigorous study settled the question in 1994. Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, a group of scientists tested normal preschoolers and children whose parents described them as being sensitive to sugar. Neither the parents, the children nor the research staff knew which of the children were getting sugary foods and which were getting a diet sweetened with aspartame and other artificial sweeteners. Urine was tested to verify compliance with the diets. Nine different measures of cognitive and behavioral performance were assessed, with measurements taken at five-second intervals.
The study concluded that sugar does not affect children’s behavior or cognitive function. An editorial that accompanied the study put a fine point on that conclusion, stating “there is no evidence that sugar alone can turn a child with normal attention into a hyperactive child.” One year later, an analysis that gathered data from all published studies on the subject reached the same conclusion.
While thoroughly refuted, the theory of the sugar high endures as a topic of ongoing investigation. But the results of these investigations continue to show that sugar does not affect children’s behavior.
Still, limiting your child’s sugar consumption is a good idea because it may help to protect them against obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.