T’is the season to be jolly – so why have my kids been so irritable and restless?
One minute they are bouncing off the walls, the next they’re in a heap screaming on the floor. They don’t listen, they can’t concentrate and all they seem to do is fight with each other…
Could the copious amounts of sugar laden festive treats be to blame for their hyperactivity?
The idea that sugar causes hyperactivity in kids has been around for a long time and is fairly well accepted within certain circles, but the truth of the matter is, this is a complete myth – Sugar does not cause hyperactivity in children.
What is hyperactivity?
Clinically, hyperactive (as one diagnostic component of ADHD), is generally diagnosed after a rigorous testing process, based on multiple and ongoing symptoms such as fidgeting or tapping of hands or feet, squirming when seated, leaving a seat in situations when remaining seated is expected, running about or climbing in situations where it is not appropriate, an inability to play or take part in leisure activities quietly, often "on the go" and acting as if "driven by a motor", talking excessively, blurting out answers before a question has been completed, trouble waiting their turn, or interrupting or intruding on others (e.g., butts into conversations or games).(1)
So despite how the term is often used, hyperactivity is not an intermitted bout of excited, energetic or reckless behaviour caused by a cup of cordial at a birthday party.
How did it all start?
The notion that sugar causes hyperactivity seems to have emerged around the time of the Feingold Diet, which was developed by an allergist in 1973 who advocated a diet free of salicylates (naturally occurring compound found in many foods), food colourings and artificial flavours to treat hyperactivity. (2)
Since then, the idea of sugar causing hyperactivity in children has been a hot research topic and ruthlessly studied. A review of twelve double-blinded, placebo-controlled trials into this issue however concluded that sugar did not cause hyperactivity in children with or without ADHD. (3) Similarly, a meta-analysis of 16 studies also concluded that sugar did not affect a child’s behaviour or cognitive performance. (4)
Although both of these studies were conducted in the mid 90’s and are somewhat dated, a more recent systematic review conducted between 1995 and 2006 showed similar results, concluding there was no credible evidence linking sugar to ADHD (or dementia or depression). (5)
It's all in your head
So why do kids turn feral at birthday parties? – because pass the parcel is the true cause of hyperactivity…
Ok maybe not, but research has suggested that it’s all a matter of perception. Basically, a research team lied to a bunch of mums who believed their 5-7 year old boys were “sugar sensitive.” All children were given a placebo drink (no sugar) but half the mothers were told their child had been dosed with sugar. The mothers who believed their children had been given sugar rated the child’s behaviour worse and, interestingly, were also noted to be more controlling and critical of their child. (6)
If not sugar then what?
Of course many highly processed foods which happen to be laden with sugar also contain artificial colours, additives and preservatives, which in a small number of sensitive children can trigger behavioural problems like irritability, restlessness and mood swings along with headaches, skin irritations, and digestive distress amongst other things. (7) So in the case of these reactions, sugar could be masking a sensitivity to additives, preservatives or colourings – just as Feingold had suggested back in 1973.
Remember however, that such sensitivities or intolerances are not necessarily restricted to artificial food stuffs but also can occur from many naturally occurring compounds like salicylates, amines and glutamates found naturally in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, meat, dairy.
So why have my kids been so restless and irritable over the school holidays?
Well probably because they are spoilt little sods… =)
Realistically, children are highly excitable, emotionally immature, overwhelmed easily, and quiet often in need of a good sleep. These traits partnered with a big bowl of sugar at breakfast, lunch and/or dinner (typically disguised in the form of breakfast cereal, juice, biscuits, muesli bars and other crap marketed to kids) typically results in tantrums, poor concentration and irritability simply as a result of the blood sugar “crash” that comes with these high GI foods – you can also imagine that for a child diagnosed with ADHD, who already may suffer these symptoms, a sugar “crash” could quiet dramatically exacerbate these symptoms.
The simple solution: choose less processed foods which apart from often being high in sugar and salt, are often high GI and contain little fibre so don't provide stable or sustained energy; choose more wholefoods including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains which are higher in fibre; enjoy all foods in moderation; and, accept that your child is a little monster =)
So sugar might not cause hyperactivity, but is it toxic?
*If you suspect your child has a food sensitivity, intolerance or allergy seek professional help from a registered dietician who is able to guide you through an appropriate elimination diet whilst maintaining nutritional adequacy. Similarly if you suspect your child is hyperactive seek appropriate medical advice.
The Monthly Myth Bust
Using research and evidence to bust and debunk all those Nutrition and Fitness myths you've been wondering about.