Hyperactivity & Sugar

Any parent that has ever been a spectator at a child's birthday party has more than likely witnessed complaints of other parents who blame sugar for disruptive behavior following the party. However, believe it or not, sugar is actually an innocent victim of guilt by association. Because others may view children at times such as these as acting up to some degree, it seems to be routinely blamed on the intake of sugar, when in fact, that is not the case. The experts in this area report the incorrect notion that sugar causes children to be hyperactive. This is the result of the popular belief that food can effect behavior especially among our children.

A popular but controversial belief is that children are more likely to be hyperactive if they eat sugar, artificial sweeteners, or certain food colorings. However, despite the debate and the research, no major studies have been able to back up those claims. Dr. Wesley Burks, professor at Duke University Medical Center, reported, "(No) scientific studies show there is an adverse effect upon a child's behavior with the ingestion of (sugar)."

There are those claims that sugar, NutraSweet, and artificial flavors and colors cause hyperactivity or allergies and other behavior problems in children. Some people argue that children should follow special diets that limit the amount of sugar, flavorings, or colors they eat. Yet, an analysis of studies from the Journal of the American Medical Association continues to come up with conclusions that indicate sugar does not effect a child's behavior. The medical industry maintains that there is no link between sugar and hyperactivity.

It is important to remember that activity levels in children vary with their age. A 2-year- old is usually more active and has an attention span different than that of a 10-year-old. A child's attention level also will vary depending on his interest in an activity. The tolerance level of the supervising adult also plays a role as parents may be able to tolerate a highly active child at a playground in the morning, for example, better than they can at home at night while preparing work for the following day.

Why then do so many parents believe that sugar makes their child hyperactive? Some researchers suggest that by simply expecting sugar to effect your child can easily influence how you interpret what you see him do. A study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that parents who believe a child's behavior is effected by sugar are more likely to perceive their child as hyperactive when they've been led to believe that child has just ingested a sugary drink. Thus, if the parent thinks their child had sugar, the parent perceives a difference in behavior that is not actually there. In fact, there are other reasons for why a child might act hyperactive including his temperament, emotional disturbance, ADHD, and sleep problems.

Mina Dulcan, MD at Children's Hospital in Chicago, reports that "There is elegant research demonstrating that sugar is not at all related to inattention or hyperactivity." She noted a study in which sugar was shown to have no effect upon the child even when the parents are convinced that the food makes the child hyperactive. "It won't hurt anybody to limit their sugar," says Dr. Dulcan, "but it won't help their behavior." Food allergies may cause a child not to feel well and disturb his sleep, which may indirectly effect his behavior, but allergic responses do not directly effect the nervous system that is responsible for controlling behavior. Medical researchers state, "Too much artificial food stuff isn't good for you, but (we do not) believe that it's going to (effect) your child's behavior."

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