Sunday, August 2, 2009

Hyperactivity, Sugar and Your Child

I attended a birthday party for a four year old the other day. It was great fun. A half a dozen kids running, jumping, sliding, screaming, yelling, laughing and crying (a little bit). I long for the time when the biggest crisis in my life was getting dirt on my candy after dropping it on the ground.

Parents are convinced that when you add sugar to a child it causes the child to become excited, over active or out of control. In fact, I saw the opposite at this recent birthday party. My observations from a childless perspective showed things differently. When each child arrived at the party, they started out a little shy to the other other children. The parents quickly got them dressed in their swimsuits and they proceeded to the slip-n-slide and the inflatable pool. Within a few short minutes, the newly arrived children were yelling, screaming, running around and basically having fun. Using the same flawed logic of the myth, we should concluded that kids + slip-n-slides + inflatable pools = hyperactivity*. I found it interesting that nobody commented on the excitable children at this point.

One crucial element needed for a successful birthday party is candy and this event was no exception. The variety of shapes, colors, textures and bursts of flavor from candy can't be beat. Kids love candy. After the pool and slip-n-slide fun-time, each child at this birthday party got a little gift bag with some small toys, stickers and candy. There was a little trading between the kids but mostly they immediately dug into the candy. While this was going on, I heard a number of parents mention that all that sugar was going to make their kids hyper, the car ride was going to be difficult, or my son will never get to sleep tonight, the kids will be "bouncing off the walls." I think we've all heard that sugar makes kids hyperactive*. This is a myth**. What I saw was children who sat down, looked their bags and quietly ate candy. After the candy, we ate dinner of hot dogs and then the birthday boy opened gifts. The gift opening was pretty exciting for the children. Perhaps children + gifts = hyperactivity?

The reality is that there is no causal relationship between sugar and hyperactivity in normal healthy children. What is going on here is a problem with confirmation bias. When parents know their child has had some sugar, they are more prone to see the excited child. There is tons of research confirming this bias. Here is a snippet from a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association:
Studies were required to (1) intervene by having the subjects consume a known quantity of sugar; (2) use a placebo (artificial sweetener) condition; (3) blind the subjects, parents, and research staff to the conditions; and (4) report statistics that could be used to compute the dependent measures effect sizes.

The meta-analytic synthesis of the studies to date found that sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children. The strong belief of parents may be due to expectancy and common association.

Junkfood Science blog goes on to detail some of the implausibilities of the the "sugar rush" myth. Sandi has a lot of references to plausibility and study designs.

Medicinenet has another good article on how foods, in general, may or may not affect behavior. Here is a snippet:

Any parent that has ever witnessed the aftermath of a child's birthday party has probably blamed sugar for the mayhem that followed the cake and ice cream. But the fact is that sugar may actually be an innocent victim of guilt by association.

Experts say the notion that sugar causes children to become hyperactive is by far the most popular example of how people believe food can affect behavior, especially among young children.

However, despite years of debate and research on the relationship between food and behavior, no major studies have been able to provide any clear scientific evidence to back up those claims.

Our bodies are very effective it regulating our glucose levels unless you are hyperglycemic (high blood sugar) or hypoglycemic (low blood sugar).

Those of you with kids, try to think hard about this before you restrict your child's candy intake. Could it be that your child is naturally excited to be with all sorts of other children, to play new games and participate in fun activities? Then go read this essay on the joys of candy.

For more reading about this see a Google search for "sugar hyperactivity" which shows about 3.9 million results.

* I'm not referring to the clinical definition of hyperactivity as in ADHD etc...

** In my quest to be less of an asshole, I refrained from mentioning what I knew about this topic to anyone at the party. It's difficult for me not to comment but I resisted in this case. It's been my experience that debunking the sugar rush myth generates arguments similar to proposing negatives about religion or Obama.

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