Do Kids Get Hyperactive by Eating Too Much Sugar?

Do kids get hyperactive by eating too much sugar and junk food? Could it even contribute to problems with ADHD? Parents everywhere seem to believe it. But some experts claim that it’s a myth.

The science seems far from certain. A new review recommends more studies on long-term sugar intake and the risk of ADHD. And a large well-designed study published in 2011 clearly showed that a diet change (including less sugar and processed food) reduces symptoms in most kids with ADHD.

TV-documentaries are no replacement for peer-reviewed science. But the British test in the video above is fascinating. One group of kids celebrate by eating cakes and candy and drinking soda. One group eats more nutritious real food. What do you think happens?

(You can see the introduction, 4 minutes long, here. But the 5-minute summary above tells the whole story.)

Do kids get hyperactive by eating sugar, candy and junk food? What do you think? And is there really any good science to disprove the theory? Leave a comment below.

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23 comments

Top comments

  1. Sparky
    I run a home day care and noticed these results a couple of years ago when I started going LCHF myself.

    When I started feeding the children more along the lines of an LCHF diet for lunch and snacks their behavior got dramatically better. They weren't bad kids to begin with, but the difference was still very visible.

    I was feeding them 'normal' healthy food before: sandwiches with whole wheat bread, lots of fruits, whole grain pastas...Now we focus on above ground vegetables and meats cooked in fat.

    Reply: #8
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  2. Murray
    Randomized control studies are preferable, but are neither necessary nor sufficient to establish causation. It may be that sugar plus A in the absence of B worsens executive sellf control. A randomized control study that compares diet X plus sugar and diet X minus sugar may or may not show correlation of behaviour to presence or absence of sugar, depending on the presence or absence of elements A and B. How much room did the kids have in their livers to absorb dietary sugar by making glycogen, for example? When did they last run around hard and upregulate the glucose receptors of muscle cells? Lots of opportunity for pro sugar researchers to show no negative effects in randomized control studies.

    Nor is RCT necessary. There are numerous examples of cultures acquiring knowledge without RCTs. Careful empirical observation and critical hermeneutics (methods of interpretation) generate knowledge from sets of narratives. Indeed, one can view any experiment as a mini-narrative or anecdote. Darwin was obviously able to derive fundamental knowledge through observation in the absence of RCTs. Weston Price inferred an important activator from ruminants grazing on fast growing grass, which several of the cultures he examined had inferred on their own. Price called the mystery substance Activator X and endured ridicule for some time, but some 75 years later the activator has been identified as vitamin K2 and its levels are indeed higher when the ruminants are feeding on fast growing grass.

    So I tend to be less fussed about RCT versus not. Sure it is nice, but experimental design is far more important. Likewise, anecdotal evidence is very helpful, but it depends highly on the interpretive skill of the observer. Some people are adept at noting patterns and reconciling anomalies--others are myopic and prone to confirmation bias. I have over the years developed a catalog of touchstones for thick fingered interpreters, such as using the law of the excluded middle, not-not-P implies P, or other variants of negative inferences.

    So I would tend to treat as more plausible the observations of a child care professional who has good interpretive skills, has been attentive to diet and exercise and varied both, and has accumulated loads of anecdotal narratives from which to generate inferences. RCTs are great down the line for enhancing certainty and identifying with greater precision the co-factors that determine when and how much dietary sugar has a negative cognitive effect.

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All comments

  1. Claudia
    I have seen this show on Norwegian TV NRK and I was very suspicious. They do break the assumption that sugar loaded party cakes and candies make kids super active even if some of the healthy fruits are loaded with fructose and massive carbs, so both foods in questions have a lot of sugar and can both promote super activity. Those shows are a risk science as we never know who is behind the study...apparently it is all super well conducted until we find out there is a nice children health oriented foundation behind the studies that actually is heavily founded by and/or belong to the sugar industry association....
  2. Elenor
    I cannot recommend highly enough the book by Dr Gabor Mate' called "Scattered" (Or, in the US, the hard-bound is called "Scattered Minds" and the paper-back is "Scattered." Idiotic publishers renaming it... {eye roll})

    His explanation, his discussion, his work, on ameliorating ADHD (or as he calls it ADD) are FANTASTIC and fascinating and wonderful! (There are lots of his talks on YouTube as well -- highly highly recommended!) (His second -- well, I read it second -- book "When the Body Says No" is also amazing and helpful and eye-opening!)

    (He discovered around age 50 he had it, and two of his three kids have it..)

  3. Sparky
    I run a home day care and noticed these results a couple of years ago when I started going LCHF myself.

    When I started feeding the children more along the lines of an LCHF diet for lunch and snacks their behavior got dramatically better. They weren't bad kids to begin with, but the difference was still very visible.

    I was feeding them 'normal' healthy food before: sandwiches with whole wheat bread, lots of fruits, whole grain pastas...Now we focus on above ground vegetables and meats cooked in fat.

    Reply: #8
  4. FrankG
    I especially appreciated the summary she gives at the end... admitting that although the behaviour between the two groups was clearly different, they don't know if it is the sugar, the additives, the refined nature of these party foods, or possibly even a lack of the nutrition available in the "real" food.
    Reply: #9
  5. Pam
    The people scoring the behaviors of the two groups knew who ate what so not even a blinded study. Too bad it wasn't better designed.
  6. Ondrej
    To reach a valid conclusion you need to conduct a real study – i.e. a randomized controlled clinical trial that takes a large group of children and randomly assigns them to diets similar in every respect except that one contains sugar and the other does not.
  7. Galina L.
    Usually people with children have plenty of chances to observe that food influences how kids behave. Why to wait for the official studies result and not to give at least a sugar-free food a try? It is not that hard.
  8. sten
    I gave our grandchildren what could be called a MBC , but this time the C stood for chocolate instead of coffee.
    Normally they rarely get into long term definite disagreements, but often deep into short heated ones, but this morning after this breakfast they were like I want to think angels are, all the time. It is not only the absence of sugar, the increase of fat close to French levels must play a definite role.
    The "French paradox" is something the future will just laugh at, I for one, think.
  9. JAUS
    You read my mind, that was what I noticed too. Great with real scientific honesty for once on TV.

    The next step should have been to remove each item one by one and then compare the results. That way they could singled out the cause/causes to hyperactivity.

  10. Murray
    Randomized control studies are preferable, but are neither necessary nor sufficient to establish causation. It may be that sugar plus A in the absence of B worsens executive sellf control. A randomized control study that compares diet X plus sugar and diet X minus sugar may or may not show correlation of behaviour to presence or absence of sugar, depending on the presence or absence of elements A and B. How much room did the kids have in their livers to absorb dietary sugar by making glycogen, for example? When did they last run around hard and upregulate the glucose receptors of muscle cells? Lots of opportunity for pro sugar researchers to show no negative effects in randomized control studies.

    Nor is RCT necessary. There are numerous examples of cultures acquiring knowledge without RCTs. Careful empirical observation and critical hermeneutics (methods of interpretation) generate knowledge from sets of narratives. Indeed, one can view any experiment as a mini-narrative or anecdote. Darwin was obviously able to derive fundamental knowledge through observation in the absence of RCTs. Weston Price inferred an important activator from ruminants grazing on fast growing grass, which several of the cultures he examined had inferred on their own. Price called the mystery substance Activator X and endured ridicule for some time, but some 75 years later the activator has been identified as vitamin K2 and its levels are indeed higher when the ruminants are feeding on fast growing grass.

    So I tend to be less fussed about RCT versus not. Sure it is nice, but experimental design is far more important. Likewise, anecdotal evidence is very helpful, but it depends highly on the interpretive skill of the observer. Some people are adept at noting patterns and reconciling anomalies--others are myopic and prone to confirmation bias. I have over the years developed a catalog of touchstones for thick fingered interpreters, such as using the law of the excluded middle, not-not-P implies P, or other variants of negative inferences.

    So I would tend to treat as more plausible the observations of a child care professional who has good interpretive skills, has been attentive to diet and exercise and varied both, and has accumulated loads of anecdotal narratives from which to generate inferences. RCTs are great down the line for enhancing certainty and identifying with greater precision the co-factors that determine when and how much dietary sugar has a negative cognitive effect.

  11. Shannon
    What are "e numbers"? (mentioned in the video near the end).

    As others pointed out they don't know what is the cause but they said that in the video. It obviously wasn't supposed to be a real, controlled study. It's really hard (impossible?) to do a double blind study on real food like this. The only way you could really do it is to turn the "food" into pills or powdered drinks or something like that.

    This is more anecdotal but most of us with kids have noticed the same thing. My kids have never gotten a sugar rush (that I've noticed) but they are definitely calmer, nicer and less anxious when they eat decent food with good amounts of protein and fat.

    Reply: #12
  12. FrankG
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E_number

    "E numbers are codes for chemicals which can be used as food additives for use within the European Union"

  13. ZellZ
    It's often a question of when science will Catch Up to what regular people already know:
    of Course loads of sugary processed bad food make kids into little tornadoes of destructive activity.
    The sugar that the "blues" ate is from foods that have loads of fiber in them, so the release of sugar will be over a much slower period of time than the cakes & ice cream garbage the yellows ate. Also, the yellows ate all the processed garbage in those awful foods.
    It would have been intriguing if the experiment had been carried out a week later, w/the same kids eating the reverse diet: yellows eating the blue diet & blues eating the yellow diet. But I think the results would be similar to the original experiment. Certainly, some kids will also have Innately more aggressive tendencies than others. Still, Food DOES affect one's mood & abilities in adults so that would mean kids are Also affected.
  14. Shannon
    Thanks Frank!
  15. Steve
    Like as has been said before I have never noticed any difference in my children when they have a sugar heavy diet so other than for other health reasons (weight and dental) I do not worry about the effects of sugar.
  16. Gaui Ella
    Let's say just because there has never been Randomized control studies done on the myth, that if I drink a lot of beer, my ability to drive a car is somehow diminished, then it has never been proved and I have the right to drink and drive?
    The affect of sugar on kids behavior is just as obvious to all but parents in denial!
  17. Robert
    The observers are unblinded which may bias the results.

    For example, if observer 1 sees two kids, one in a blue shirt (sugar group) and one in a red shirt (whole food group) acting in a similar fashion, he or she may be liable to label the sugar group kid a 2/5 on focus and the whole food kid a 3/5 on focus simply because they know one ate lots of refined sugar while the other did not.

    This is why science has "double'blind" trials -- the patients themselves AND the observers do not know what treatment they're getting.

    Both the chlidren and observers were unblinded. Which may hurt the validity of the study (though this is probably a pilot so not as important in this stage).

    Reply: #18
  18. sten
    Don't forget that observers believing that sugar makes no difference may well show their preferences in the results as well. Just like the sceptics here believing that sugar makes no difference!
    And you left out the skill tests like jigsaws and other(s) from your analysis. Here the results were influenced only by skill and counting/timing.

    If a full report was available it would resolve some controversy and possibly making the performed experiment more useful.

  19. Calin Culianu
    This isn't really 'science'.

    Maybe it's the yellow shirts? I have heard yellow causes aggression. Also one of the groups had more girls in it.. girls are more peaceful.

    In all seriousness, I do think there is something to this and it's pretty easy to observe for anyone who has spent any time with kids. You give them sugar, they bounce off the walls.

  20. Nan
    I taught young children in my early career days in the early 70s, and could certainly tell a big difference in the kids after sugar laden birthday parties--and when the weather was windy and/or stormy. There is no doubt in my mind that sugars excites agitated behavior, and even adults who are in tune with their bodies feel this effect. I certainly have in my SAD eating days, and even more now when I have a rare piece of wedding cake or some such.
    Weather, too, can make us young or old feel unsettled. My point being, that when you are with 35 kids all day, you certainly learn to recognize what makes them get up, down, antsy, etc.

    http://www.sugaraholics.com

    Reply: #21
  21. sten
    Both stress and excitement raise adrenalin which in turn raise pulse and blood sugar, all to get us ready for fight, flight, or fun. Add party sugar and good insulin sensitivity at young age and of course every part of young bodies become easily supercharged.
    And the higher the peak the lower the following valley. It is nothing new that sweets are like "rocket fuel" for kids, especially combined with something that is exciting in itself, like a party.

    Wonder what effects sweets had on grown ups on parties 150 years ago, when sweets were rare? Or sweets om Kitavans ?
    If those of us who practice LCHF take ONE occasional modern sugar laced ice cream, will we speed up similarly like kids? Maybe only if our fasting insulin ( approx. = insulin resistance) is down to similar levels as kids? But that seems to be really hard to reach. 6-9 year old non obese have average fasting insulin around or below 6, but closer to 9 if they are obese.
    My own fasting insulin was down to 8.8 after 1.5 year LCHF; the reason my weight loss stalled?
    If ever get my fasting insuiln below 6 I will try the once off sweet at a party and report back!

    Reply: #22
  22. Galina L.
    @Sten,
    You weight-loss stall could be due the lower leptine if you lost some weight on a LC diet, but the low insulin keeps you from being hungry as a result of low leptine. I measured both hormones which are low .
    Reply: #23
  23. sten
    I think 8.8 fasting insulin is high and I am on same lc diet as before weight loss stalling, but I went from 97 to 92 and target is 80-85 so I am not too far off!
    I can see 3 avenues to get it down, as my morning blood sugar can be over 6 sometimes.
    1/ lower protein intake especially at night to reduce protein input for liver to make blood sugar during nights
    2/Combine any higher protein intake with wine to force the liver to clear ethanol instead of producing more BS
    3/ More exercise to empty glycogen depots so that liver must fill these up before flooding BS.

    Will see if leptin can be checked to next time !

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