We decided to investigate whether sugar has a scientifically proven influence on children’s behavior, despite the widespread belief among parents that sweet soda, cakes, and pastries, which contain high levels of glucose, cause hyperactivity, disobedience, and restlessness in children.
Glucose, which is rapidly absorbed and provides a large amount of energy in a short period of time, is produced when sugar enters the body. As a result, sweet snacks are recommended during intense physical activity as well as when solving complex mental tasks. For instance, marathon runners often consume chocolate bars before a race, and during the exams, schoolchildren are permitted to bring only water and chocolate. Furthermore, many of us have personally experienced the immediate boost in energy and alertness that occurs when we consume something sweet.
In 1995, American pediatrician Mark Wolraich and a team of scientists conducted a meta-analysis of 23 previously published studies that used the keywords “sugar,” “sucrose,” and “attention deficit.” All the selected experiments used a placebo, a sugar substitute, in addition to sugar, and the participants and researchers were unaware of who received what during the study. This randomized and blinded approach allowed for the most accurate data. After analyzing the 23 publications, the authors of the meta-analysis did not find any correlation between sugar consumption and changes in children’s behavior or cognitive abilities.
Mark Wolraich conducted an additional experiment to support his team’s findings. He recruited 25 preschoolers (aged 3-5) and 23 schoolchildren (aged 6-10), as well as their parents. The experiment consisted of three three-week periods, during which the children followed a specific diet. The first three weeks involved high sugar consumption without artificial sweeteners. In the second period, sugar was significantly reduced, and aspartame was used instead. The third diet had low sugar content, and saccharin was used as a sweetener. The results showed that changing the amount of sugar in the children’s diet did not affect their behavior, as per the analysis.
The origin of the belief that sweets make children uncontrollable was investigated by scientists from Kansas, who conducted an experiment involving 35 children between the ages of 5 and 7 and their mothers. They were divided into two groups – an experimental and a control group. In the experimental group, parents were informed that their children had consumed a drink with a high sugar content, while the control group was told that an artificial sweetener was used instead of natural sugar. However, in reality, all the children in both groups received a drink with the sweetener aspartame. The children and parents played together for a while, and the experimenters recorded the interaction process on video. After the experiment, parents were asked to share their observations. The adults who believed their children had consumed natural sugar described them as hyperactive, less obedient, and more uncontrollable. Conversely, in the group where parents thought their child had only received a sweetener, they spoke of their children’s good behavior and calmness. After reviewing the video, the scientists also noted that mothers who believed their child had consumed sugar were more critical, tried to stay physically closer, constantly maintained eye contact, and were much more controlling of their children’s behavior.
According to the results of the experiment conducted by scientists from Kansas, the expectation of sugar did not affect children’s behavior. Instead, it affected the behavior of their parents, making them more strict and demanding of discipline. Psychologists believe that in situations where a child consumes excessive amounts of sweets at a friend’s birthday party, the atmosphere of the celebration and fun may be a greater provoking factor for undesirable behavior, rather than the amount of sugar consumed.
While some scientists suggest a possible link between sugar and the development of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), there is currently no strong evidence to support this theory. Although sugar consumption among children in the United States has increased over the years, along with the diagnosis of ADHD becoming more common, a study of 107 schoolchildren found no significant associations between sugar consumption and the risk of developing ADHD. Additionally, a 2019 meta-review noted that while some observations suggest that a diet high in refined sugar and saturated fat may increase the risk of ADHD, the evidence for this theory is weak and requires further investigation.
It is important to note that the exact causes of ADHD are still unknown, although scientists suggest that genetic predisposition may play a significant role, as well as exposure to toxic substances such as lead, smoking and alcohol consumption during pregnancy, premature birth, and low birth weight. Experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that studies do not confirm the common belief that ADHD can be caused by excessive sugar consumption.
Scientists have not found any scientific evidence indicating that sugar negatively impacts children’s behavior. However, parents may unintentionally harm their children’s behavior by believing that sugar consumption causes negative behavior. As a result, parents may become more critical and demand more obedience from their children.