Fact Check

Sugar Causes Hyperactivity in Children?

This idea has circulated in the United States since the 1970s.

Published April 3, 2024

A child eats sugary cereals. ( Getty Images)
A child eats sugary cereals. (Image Via Getty Images)
Claim:
Sugar makes kids hyperactive.

For decades in the United States, parents have operated on the idea that kids who eat too much candy become hyperactive. This concern was so resistant it kept showing up on parenting forums. Embedded in questions about the topic was the assumption that this was true. "Why do children get very hyper when they eat sugar but adults don't?" one Quora user asked. "Why does sugar make you hyper?" another posted.

The Origins of the Claim

This notion appeared in U.S. popular culture in 1975, when allergist Ben Feingold published his book "Why Your Child Is Hyperactive," which argued that "Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is caused by artificial food flavors and colors." The book blamed additives, including sugar, for hyperactivity in children (for additional Snopes readings on additives, see this, this and this).

The book still enjoys relative success. Reviews on Goodreads indicate it still holds a lot of sway with some readers. In 2014, one reader gave the book five stars and wrote: 

Hyperactivity can be triggered by synthetic additives — specifically synthetic colors, synthetic flavors and the preservatives BHA, BHT (and later TBHQ) – and also a group of foods containing a natural salicylate radical. This is an immunological – not an allergic – response.

Though these findings came out in 1975 or so, children are still being given Ritalin. I have seen what this drug can do to kids and it isn't pretty. It makes me sad to think so many parents are too afraid or lazy to try something as simple, inexpensive, and safe as a change in diet. Thank God, when my own son was considered hyperactive, I went to the library and found this book. I cannot recommend this book enough.

"This book started my family on a loooong journey and i am grateful," another five-star reviewer commented.

In 1979, a companion cookbook came out, "The Feingold Cookbook for Hyperactive Children." A website dedicated to Feingold's work encourages parents to "ditch harmful additives," and sells handbooks and guide that help them do as much.

Sugar as a Top Culprit?

The main point people seemed to retain from this popular phenomenon was that sugar makes children hyperactive. Since the 1970s, however, research has debunked the idea that sugar makes kids temporarily hyper. It also has found that the cause of ADHD, a delay in the development of the prefrontal cortex and a lifelong condition, is not too much sugar.

"Research has not supported popularly held views that ADHD arises from excessive sugar intake, food additives, excessive viewing of television, or poor child management by parents," clinical neuropsychologist and researcher Russell Barkley, who dedicated his career to the study of ADHD, wrote in a factsheet (PDF) about the condition.

In 1995, a team from Vanderbilt University Child-Development Center ran a "meta-analysis" — a review of several studies — on how sugar affected children's behavior and ability to think and learn, and it concluded that it had no effect. "The meta-analytic synthesis of the studies to date found that sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children," the researchers wrote. "The strong belief of parents may be due to expectancy and common association."

Several subsequent studies have shown that the endurance of this erroneous idea might stem from confirmation bias, or the circumstances in which children consume sugar. For example, if one expects children to act hyperactive after ingesting sweets, one might focus on these behaviors more when they do and less when they don't. Also, kids tend to eat and drink sugary things during gatherings like birthdays, holidays or parties — moments when the presence of others, the chance for energetic play or the exchange of presents might add to the excitement. 

"The food additive theory was effectively disproven by randomized, double-blind trials of elimination diets, but the firm belief in the sugar 'high' or 'rush' has persisted in the face of uniformly negative evidence from many randomized trials of similar design," wrote Michael S. Kramer, a professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at McGill University Faculty of Medicine, in December 2023.

Sugar Problems

Still, while sugars should be part of a balanced diet, excessive sugar intake causes problems. A high-sugar diet can increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes, for example. In 2017, a study of more than 23,000 people from the United Kingdom showed that high sugar intake is associated, in the long term, with mood disorders in men, and that reducing sugar in the diet might act as a way to prevent depression.

High intake of sugar can also affect those with reactive hypoglycemia — a condition more commonly known as "sugar crash." While it is more common among people with diabetes, sometimes it happens to those who don't have diabetes (including children), a few hours after a meal. Besides physical symptoms such as shakiness, dizziness or sweating, a sugar crash can cause anxiety and irritability. Experts have found that it is predictive of diabetes, especially if it occurs four hours or more after meals. To manage it, doctors recommend lowering sugar intake, eating at shorter intervals and exercising regularly.

Sources

AbleChild. 'The Feingold Cookbook for Hyperactive Children'. AbleChild, 17 Feb. 2022, https://www.ablechild.org/2022/02/17/the-feingold-cookbook-for-hyperactive-children/.

Altuntaş, Yüksel. 'Postprandial Reactive Hypoglycemia'. Şişli Etfal Hastanesi Tıp Bülteni, vol. 53, no. 3, Aug. 2019, pp. 215–20. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.14744/SEMB.2019.59455.

Barkley, Russell. ADHD Factsheet. https://www.russellbarkley.org/factsheets/adhd-facts.pdf.

'Effects of Sugar Consumption on Human Behavior and Performance'. The Psychological Record, vol. 63, 2013, pp. 1–12, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257308874_Effects_of_Sugar_Consumption_on_Human_Behavior_and_Performance.

FAUS - Store. https://www.feingold.org/store. Accessed 1 Apr. 2024.

Hofeldt, F. D. 'Reactive Hypoglycemia'. Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America, vol. 18, no. 1, Mar. 1989, pp. 185–201.

'How to Treat Reactive Hypoglycemia'. Cleveland Clinic, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-to-treat-reactive-hypoglycemia. Accessed 1 Apr. 2024.

Knüppel, Anika, et al. 'Sugar Intake from Sweet Food and Beverages, Common Mental Disorder and Depression: Prospective Findings from the Whitehall II Study'. Scientific Reports, vol. 7, July 2017, p. 6287. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-05649-7.

Kramer, Michael S. 'The "Hype" About Sugar and Children's Behavior'. Believe It or Not: The History, Culture, and Science Behind Health Beliefs and Practices, edited by Michael S. Kramer, Springer Nature Switzerland, 2023, pp. 143–49. Springer Link, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-46022-7_15.

'What Causes Type 2 Diabetes?' Diabetes UK, https://www.diabetes.org.uk/diabetes-the-basics/types-of-diabetes/type-2/causes. Accessed 1 Apr. 2024.

'Why Your Child Is Hyperactive by Ben Feingold: 9780394734262 | PenguinRandomHouse.Com: Books'. PenguinRandomhouse.Com, https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/48651/why-your-child-is-hyperactive-by-ben-f-feingold-md/. Accessed 1 Apr. 2024.

Wolraich, Mark L., et al. 'The Effect of Sugar on Behavior or Cognition in Children: A Meta-Analysis'. JAMA, vol. 274, no. 20, Nov. 1995, pp. 1617–21. Silverchair, https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.1995.03530200053037.

Anna Rascouët-Paz is based in Brooklyn, fluent in numerous languages and specializes in science and economic topics.