If the cupcake is half over your child’s face and half in them, then they’re entirely responsible for their behavior, right? Not correct. While the belief that sugar causes hyperactivity in children is widespread and perpetuated by children themselves, it is a myth, according to Sabiha Kanchwala, MD, MD, general pediatrician at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital.
The popular Feingold Diet, which eliminated food additives, put sugar under the microscope in the 1970s. But a few years later, in the 1980s, the Feingold Diet was subjected to the same scrutiny, and several conflicting studies were produced. The results concluded that sugar has no effect on children’s behavior.
“We’re almost 40 years later and people still think that sugar makes their kids really active or hyperactive,” says Kanchwala.
expectation and perception
Kanchwala says that a large part of this myth stems from the power of our own minds. When we get into a situation where we expect a certain outcome, we are likely to see that outcome. It’s a placebo effect.
“Even children know the power of their brain. They say, ‘I’ve eaten all these sweets, I’ll never go to sleep!’” says Kanchwala. “We know that sugar in and of itself isn’t what makes your child hyperactive, but there are a variety of other things that lead to their overactivity.”
Most often, hyperactivity in children results from poor sleep. Kanchwala recommends careful sleep hygiene to ensure your child gets adequate sleep. Turn off electronics well before bedtime, create a sleep-promoting environment, follow a bedtime routine (including time), and make sure your child gets between 10-12 hours a night for school-age children and 8-10 hours a night for children gets teenagers. Sufficient exercise during the day also helps children to fall asleep.
“Adults are more tired and sleepy during the day if they don’t sleep well; Kids can be really hyperactive,” says Kanchwala. “One of the biggest factors in patient hyperactivity is lack of sleep.”
A chronic condition can also cause hyperbehaviour, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Kanchwala says these children’s behavior can appear like hyperactivity when it isn’t. If you think your child is struggling with such a condition, speak to your pediatrician right away about an evaluation, especially in school-age children.
Other factors are stress, trauma or caffeine. Some sweets, such as chocolate, contain caffeine and create a perceived “sugar rush.” Caffeine can prevent drowsiness, cause restlessness, increase heart rate, and cause other side effects. It’s possible that your child’s behavior will coincide with caffeine intake.
It’s important to remember that children are children, and what a parent interprets as hyperactivity can be the natural, healthy energy of young life. Dive into the source of your child’s hyperactivity. Consider when and where your child’s hyperactivity blooms, whether their hyperactivity corresponds to their sleep, or whether another type of behavioral health issue might be at play.
The real effects of sugar
Sugar itself may not make your child hyperactive, but it does affect your child’s health and future. Kanchwala says that childhood intake of processed sugar leads to obesity. This major health problem leads to health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, liver disease and even mental illness in both childhood and adulthood.
Processed sugar often shows up on labels for overall unhealthy foods — quick, processed foods that make for easy grab-and-go snacks for a busy household.
“Unfortunately, readily available foods contain added sugars that make them taste better and keep them longer,” says Kanchwala. “Parents should be mindful of the foods children eat that contain these processed sugars.”
The more unprocessed the diet, the healthier it is for the child, says Kanchwala. She recommends avoiding juices and other sugary snacks like fruit gums and replacing them with foods with naturally occurring sugars. For example, replace apple juice with an apple.
Kanchwala also warns parents against offering sugary treats as an incentive for good behavior. This can set a precedent for eating disorders and even eating disorders. Kanchwala says to use stickers or a fun activity as positive reinforcement instead of food.
“We still want kids to be kids and to have these types of treats and foods occasionally but not regularly,” says Kanchwala.
Ask your pediatrician or family doctor about your child’s sugar intake and hyperactivity. Make an appointment online.