Hyperactivity and sugar
Toggle: English / Spanish
Hyperactivity refers to increased movement, impulsiveness, distractibility, and decreased attention span. A popular but controversial belief is that children are more likely to be hyperactive if they eat sugar, artificial sweeteners, or certain food colorings.
This article focuses on the possible controversial link between sugar and hyperactivity in children.
Diet - hyperactivity
Some people claim that sugar (such as sucrose), aspartame (NutraSweet), and artificial flavors and colors cause hyperactivity and other behavior problems in children. Some people argue that children should follow special diets that limit the amount of sugar, flavorings, or colors they eat.
It is important to remember that activity levels in children vary with their age. A 2 year old is usually more active, and has a shorter attention span, than a 10 year old. A child's attention level also will vary depending on his or her interest in an activity. The tolerance level of the supervising adult also plays a role -- parents may be able to tolerate a highly active child at a playground in the morning, for example, better than they can at home late at night.
However, if a special diet of foods without artificial flavors or colors works for a child, it may be because that family has begun to interact with each other differently when they are following the special diet. These behavioral changes, not the diet itself, may improve the child's own behavior and activity level.
Refined (processed) sugars may have some effect on children's activity. Because refined sugars and carbohydrates enter the bloodstream quickly, they produce rapid fluctuations in blood glucose levels. This might trigger adrenaline and make a child more active. Sometimes, falling adrenaline levels bring on a period of decreased activity.
A number of studies have shown a relationship between artificial colorings and hyperactivity. On the other hand, some studies do not show any effect of colorings on children's behavior. At least for now, the effect of food colorings remains another controversial issue.
Regardless of the true impact of sugar on children's activity level, remember that sugar remains the major culprit in tooth decay. Limit the amount of processed sugars that your children eat as much as possible.
High-sugar foods tend to have fewer vitamins and minerals, and may replace more nutritious foods. High-sugar foods also have many unnecessary calories that can lead to obesity.
Some people have allergies to specific dyes and flavors. If a child has a diagnosed allergy, consult a dietitian for specific food recommendations.
Add plenty of fiber to your child's diet to keep adrenaline levels more constant. For breakfast, fiber is found in oatmeal, shredded wheat, berries, bananas, whole-grain pancakes. For lunch, fiber is found in whole-grain breads, peaches, grapes, and other fresh fruits.
Provide "quiet time" so that children can learn to calm themselves at home. If your child cannot sit still when other children of his or her age can, or if he or she cannot control impulsive behavior, seek a professional evaluation.
- Last Reviewed on 05/02/2011
- Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- 2013 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
This page was last updated: May 31, 2013