Sugar, tantrums and hyperactivity: a sweet myth that’s 100 years old

Perhaps children love sweets as much as most parents fear childish tantrums. Although there are those who do not see anything wrong with sugar, many limit it. And not so much because of caries or fear of diabetes: it is believed that sugar is the cause of overexcitation and children’s tantrums.   

This theory not only excites parents and makes sweets off the table – it is even considered as the cause of hyperactivity disorder in children. And in vain. We will tell you where this “sweet myth” came from, and how experts have already refuted it.

Sugar and the “neurotic child”: where did the myth come from?

There is a lot of information about the dangers of sugar. It is broadcast from screens and printed in magazines. Even in children’s cartoons, one can find explanations: here is a cute and calm child who ate a bag of sweets and began to freak out. And then he ran out of “sugar energy”, he became sad and fell exhausted on the bed.

Research has long proven that sugar is not the cause of overexcitation in children. Why does this myth continue to exist?

Sugar consumption can lead to “child neurotization,” a theory that first appeared in the medical literature in 1922 and later gained popularity in the 1970s when researchers first tried to understand and treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The 1922 study was rather “unclean”: today such works are actively criticized.

It did not take into account many external factors, there was no method of blind randomization – when children, parents and scientists themselves do not know whether the subject is receiving an active substance (sugar) or a placebo (for example, a sugar substitute). 

Children’s heredity, sleep schedule, stress level, dietary patterns and many other factors were also not taken into account – and they greatly affect the behavior of both healthy children and a child with ADHD. 

Meanwhile, the concept of the effects of high glucose levels in food was strongly debunked by a double-blind controlled study published in a medical journal back in 1994.

In that experiment, the researchers recruited groups of typical preschoolers and those whose parents described them as sensitive to the effects of sugar. Then, some children were randomly assigned to eat sweet foods and others to eat foods sweetened with aspartame. No one, including parents, children, and researchers, knew which of the children was eating what.

No behavioral or cognitive differences were found across the groups, and the same results have been replicated in several subsequent studies.

The reproducibility of research results is an important marker of its reliability. This means that the experiment will always have the same results, and this is not an accident, but a pattern. 

For example, the effect of some food colors on a child’s health has been confirmed more than once.  

The pattern in this case is as follows: children do not respond to high doses of sugar with overexcitement and tantrums.

What happens in the body when glucose is supplied?

But how do you relate this scientific reality to parenting experiences of how sugar affects their children? Our brains and bodies can feel a surge of energy after consuming sugar, especially if some time has passed since the previous meal and the energy level has decreased.

This is because dietary sugar is a simple carbohydrate that is quickly broken down in the digestive tract to reach blood flow. But this rapid outburst does not turn into hyperactivity or hysteria.

When sugar is finally broken down and used by the body, the initial burst of energy can be accompanied by a breakdown as the amount of glucose in the bloodstream drops again some time after eating. Again, this does not necessarily lead to bad behavior, but some children may feel tired, hungry, or moody at this stage.

Each person’s body reacts differently to food. Some of us are more sensitive to drops in blood sugar than others.

But these symptoms are really just an indication that it’s time to eat again. And it’s not about sweets.

If children eat a mixture of fat and protein along with glucose, such as in a sweet yogurt or nut chocolate bar, any sugar-related energy surges and subsequent dips are subtle.

Experts say that even people who are especially sensitive to “glucose energy” help avoid such surges of the usual balance of proteins, fats and carbohydrates, for example, a glass of milk with a plate of cookies. The body’s reaction to even a cake or cake will be much lower than to pure sugar in tea – because baked goods contain fats.

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