Does Sugar Really Cause Hyperactivity in Children?

Most parents worry that too much sugar will lead to hyperactivity in kids.
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You likely hear it all the time. A mother says, “His grandmother got him all hyped up on sugar and then sent him home!”  Or a father says, “Don’t give him too much sugar before bed or he won’t ever go to sleep!” But some parents wonder, does sugar really cause hyperactivity in children?

Historical Link Between Sugar and Hyperactivity

The idea that sugar causes hyperactivity stems from a popular diet in 1973, referred to as the Feingold Diet.

Dr. Feingold advocated a diet free of artificial coloring and artificial flavoring as a means to treat hyperactivity.

Although he didn’t specifically suggest that parents should eliminate sugar, the idea spread quickly that any type of food additive could be linked to behavior problems. Over the years, the idea that sugar could be the root cause of hyperactivity took hold.

Recent Research Studies

The idea that cookies and cupcakes lead to wild behavior in children has spurred a lot of debate in the medical community. Fortunately, that debate has led to several in-depth research studies.

In 1995, the Journal of the American Medical Association reviewed the various studies. The researchers concluded that sugar does not lead to hyperactivity in children. They did acknowledge there could be a chance that sugar may have a minor effect on a small number of children.

Parental Expectations of Sugar

There has also been a lot of speculation that it's not the sugar that leads to hyperactivity.

Instead, it may be the parents belief that sugar causes hyperactivity that inadvertently encourages kids to become more active after eating a sweet treat.

Parents may simply report increased hyperactivity after their kids consume sugar because they're on the lookout for hyperactivity. Or, they may say things to their kids like, "You'll be bouncing off the walls when you're done eating all that candy," which may encourage kids to become more energetic.

A 1994 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology demonstrated this effect. Mothers of 5 to 7-year-old boys were told their children would receive high doses of sugar. Then, the mothers were asked to rate their children’s behavior.

The majority of mothers rated their sons’ behaviors as more hyperactive, even though half of the children weren’t actually given any sugar at all. The researchers concluded that parents who believe sugar impacts behavior will think their children have become more hyperactive after consuming sugary foods.

What Parents Need to Know About Sugar

Even though an ice cream sundae or a piece of cake isn’t likely to skyrocket your child’s energy level, there are still some sound reasons to avoid indulging your child is sweet treats. Here are just a few of the reasons to trade in the cookies for carrot sticks:

  • High-sugar foods don’t provide much nutritional value. They’re often low in vitamins and minerals. It’s difficult for children to get everything they need from their diet when much of their food comes from empty calories.
  • Too much sugar in a child’s diet can contribute to obesity. Many sugary treats are high in calories.
  • A diet high in sugar increases a child’s risk of tooth decay.

Although sugar isn’t likely to make your child hyper, desserts, sugar-sweetened drinks, and other sugary snacks should be consumed in moderation for the sake of your child’s health. Set limits on what you allow your child to eat and be a good role model when it comes to health and nutrition.


Wolraich ML, Wilson DB, White J. The Effect of Sugar on Behavior or Cognition in Children: A Meta-analysis. JAMA.1995;274(20):1617-1621. doi:10.1001/jama.1995.03530200053037.

Hoover DW, Millich R. Effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactions. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 1994 Aug 22(4):501-15.

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