by Denise Croote '16
Do you remember your mother’s facial expression when you brought home another birthday party invitation in 3rd grade? Through those clenched teeth, she was secretly dreading the sugar-induced hyperactivity that she was going to have to deal with after Jimmy’s mom shipped you back. Calculating the grams of sugar in the cake, Kool-Aid, and goodie bags, her apprehension was almost palpable.
Everyone “knows” that sugar induces hyperactivity in children, but the research does not support this belief. An article published in the British Medical Journal in 2008 reported that twelve double-blinded, randomized control trials failed to see a difference in the behavior of children placed on sugar versus non-sugar diets. Like at a birthday party, the researchers fed children sugar from sweets and chocolates. Interestingly, none of the studies reported a difference in behavior even in the children who were considered “sensitive” to sugar, including those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Further, a meta-analysis of the Medline and psychINFO databases analyzed studies that gave children a known amount of sugar, used a placebo condition in their study, and blinded the parents, children, and researchers to the treatment condition. This meta-analysis also concluded that sugar does not affect the behavioral or cognitive performance of children and suggested that the myth might have arisen from the fact that parents expect their children to be hyperactive.
A study of 35 children aged five to seven, who were reported by their mothers as sugar-sensitive, sought to test this theory of expectancy versus reality. In the experimental group, mothers were told that their children received a large dose of sugar, and in the control group mothers were told that their children were not given any sugar. All children received a placebo, meaning they did not receive any sugar, and the interactions between the mothers and children were videotaped. The mothers who expected their children to be hyperactive rated their children as more hyperactive and also treated their children more sternly. The mothers were noted to stand closer to and reprimand their children more often than the mothers of the control group. These results align nicely with the psychological theory that people tend to see what they expect to see and are capable of ignoring contradicting evidence. An additional theory the authors proposed was that the mothers who expected their children to be hyperactive felt they needed to hover over their children more. In the process, they expended more energy monitoring their children and felt increasingly tired afterward, which likely factored into their later rating of how hyperactive the children were.
Yet, is this a myth we really want to disprove? If parents feel that sugar causes hyperactivity, they might be less likely to give their child sweet treats, which is not a bad thing, especially given high obesity rates in the United States. I don’t mean to imply that children should be given sugar-free Jell-O in their lunch boxes and instructed to bring in carrot sticks for snack time when it’s their birthday. But at the end of the day, a little moderation never killed anybody.