Is Sugar to Blame for Hyperactivity?

Health Writer

One question that continues to haunt parents of children with ADHD is: Does sugar cause hyperactivity? Throughout my years of writing about ADHD, parents have consistently written to me asking whether they should limit their child's sugar intake to help reduce hyperactivity. My answer is: You should limit your child's sugar intake because sugar causes tooth decay and eating too many sweet foods can contribute to obesity. However, according to a number of well-documented studies, there is no correlation between ADHD and sugar.

There are a few theories as to why so many parents believe that sugar causes hyperactivity:

The myth began back in the 1970's when Dr. Feingold suggested that certain additives and food coloring contributed to hyperactivity. Many parents included sugar in the foods that should be avoided. The myth is perpetuated, according to an article on Cornell University's website, because parents think it is so. According to the article, a study completed showed that parents who believed they had sugar rated them as more hyperactivity, while parents who thought their children did not have sugar rated them as less hyperactive. In the study, none of the children had received any foods or drinks with sugar.

Parents are rating the situation rather than the food. For example, many parents will indicate that hyperactivity is higher after special occasions, holidays or birthday parties. At these events, your children probably ate cake, cookies, ice cream and other sweets, leading parents to believe it is the sweets that caused the hyperactivity. The Cornell article indicates that is more often the event that caused the child to seem more active, not the food.

Processed, or refined, sugars may have a slight effect on your child's activity. This is because they enter the bloodstream quickly and produce rapid fluctuations in blood glucose levels. This can possibly cause a child to become temporarily more active and then, as the adrenaline levels fall, slow down. Even if this is true, the impact is slight and would not last very long. Children with hyperactivity tend to be very active all the time, not only after having sugar. If you believe your child becomes more active after eating processed sugars, try to include more fiber in his or her diet as this will help make adrenaline levels more consistent.

There have been at least a dozen studies that have not been able to show a link between sugar and ADHD, which has three main symptoms: inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. Sugar, even if it made your child a little more active, would not explain symptoms of inattention or impulsiveness. There are definite, specific signs of ADHD and a qualified medical professional is able to accurately diagnose it.

Despite not causing activity levels to increase, there are several good reasons to cut down on the amount of sugar your child consumes.

  • Sugar is the number one cause of tooth decay.
  • When your child fills up on sugary foods, he may skip more nutritious foods.
  • High sugar foods can lead to obesity.

If you believe that foods are impacting your child's behavior, keep a log of his activity level and behaviors, noting every food he has eaten and the time he eats. You can then bring this log with you to the doctor for review. If your medical professional feels it is necessary, he will order additional tests to find out if there is a medical reason causing the different behaviors.

"Hyperactivity and Sugar," Updated 2011, May 2, Updated by Neil K. Kaneshiro, MedLine Plus: U.S. National Library of Medicine

"Sugar Does Not Cause Hyperactive Behavior," 2000, May 31, Barbara J. Strupp, Cornell Center for Material Research

"Sugar Makes Children Hyperactive - and Other Medical Myths," 2009, Jan 9, Philip Wilson, Consumer Reports