More Reason to Think Sugar Is Bad for Kids

By Temma Ehrenfeld @Temmaehrenfeld
April 23, 2021

Do your childen seem to “bounce off the walls” when they eat sugary foods? Here’s a new argument that why eating sugar may increase the risk of ADHD.

Parents often say that their kids are “bouncing off the walls” after eating sugar — for instance, at a birthday party. Although there hasn’t been good evidence to back this up, there is an evolutionary argument why kids might overreact. We are also seeing more evidence of a link between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.


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The case that sugar doesn’t affect behavior

The wall-bouncing idea goes back to a popular diet proposed by allergist Benjamin Feingold, MD, in 1973. He advised parents to keep kids with allergies or hyperactivity away from food additives like artificial colors. Feingold didn’t actually pinpoint sugar, but sugar came under scrutiny.

More than 20 years later, an influential study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, analyzed all the quality research to that point: 23 experiments with placebo, measured amounts of sugar, and participants who didn’t know who was getting the sugar. It concluded that “sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children.” The team did say sugar might have a small effect on a small group of children.

It’s common for people to see what they’re looking for. In at least one study, when mothers were told that their children had been given sugar, they were more likely to rate the kids’ behavior as hyperactive — even if the children hadn’t eaten sugar.

Most recently, a relatively large study of children ages 6 to11 found no link between ADHD and sugar consumption.

To add all this up, we know kids are eating more sugar than is good for them, in part because of high obesity rates, but we don’t have evidence that eating sweets is tied to the increase in diagnosed cases of ADHD — or even that sugar affects any particular children’s behavior.

The case that sugar could affect behavior

On the other side of this debate, scientists at the University of Colorado argued in a paper that fructose and uric acid could trigger a survival mechanism that leads to what we now consider bad behavior.

Fructose is the sweetener in honey and corn syrup and other sugars common in processed foods. The body produces uric acid, which can build up and cause the painful symptoms of gout, when it breaks down fructose.

Fructose is a source of energy. It’s quite rare in nature but common in the modern diet. In addition, mice research has suggested that high-salt diets — also common these days — can stimulate the body to make fructose.

In many animals, fructose triggers the foraging response, needed to build up energy stores before hibernation or a long trip.

In short, in some people fructose could fool their bodies into thinking they need to seek out food fast for fear of starvation. Why would a wallop of energy make us think we’ll be short later? Blood sugar spikes up — and then plunges down. When that mechanism kicks in, we’re wired to take more risks, move fast, act impulsively or aggressively, and seek out new sources of food.

The animal behaviors are similar, the authors say, to what we see as symptoms of ADHD, bipolar disorder, or disturbances that lead to aggression.

We know that these conditions have increased alongside obesity and higher consumption of these sweets.

Apart from the evolutionary argument, it’s possible that the impact on behavior arises from long-term effects of sugar on the brain, which would be hard to see in a study looking for immediate reactions.

ADHD and diabetes

There are also links between blood sugar levels and ADHD. Children with type 1 diabetes are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, and teens and adults with ADHD are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.

Cutting back on sugar — and keeping blood sugar levels even — is a good bet for physical and mental health, even if we can’t yet prove a no-sugar diet will help kids or adults with ADHD or other problems.


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April 23, 2021

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN