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Does Sugar Really Make Kids Hyper?

October 30, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Child wearing a witch hat holding a bucket of candy

If you ask most parents this question, it’s likely they’ll say yes. What’s interesting is that this myth started with a single man doing ‘research’ on a single subject in the 1970s. Since then there have been several studies done on children with sugar exposure, and the results are in:

It’s not the sugar.

Some studies have shown that parents will rate their child’s behavior as more hyperactive when told they’ve had a sugary drink, when in reality, it was sugar free. Also keep in mind that kids tend to consume the most sugar (cake, ice cream, candy, etc.) at birthday parties and other fun events. Of course, children are going to be excited! 

With a lot of food-focused holidays coming up, parents are curious: Even if my kid won’t be hyper because of candy, what about other issues sugar can cause?

Too much candy and other desserts can affect dental health, cause liver issues, and don’t leave enough space for foods high in vitamins and minerals that kids need for growth and development. But overly restricting sweets can make it a coveted food, which can lead to sneaking food, obsessive thoughts, and a disordered relationship with food. So what is a parent to do?

With decades of research behind it, the Ellyn Satter Division of Responsibility is a great resource. Parents are in charge of what, when, and where children eat, while children are in charge of if they eat and how much. Parents serve the whole family the same foods, dinner is calm and pleasant. Sounds simple, right? It is, and it isn’t.

There are quite a few nuances, and of course some children have sensory differences or prior experiences that can make eating a huge challenge.

This blog will go over a few starting points. If you’re still struggling, Huntsville Hospital has great Speech Language Pathologists who are trained in childhood feeding difficulties and would love to assess and support you and your family. 

Parents: What, When, and Where

What: Always include a familiar, previously accepted food to ensure each family member has something they can eat. It doesn’t have to be an entrée: a fruit or starch is fine for some meals. Kids have surprisingly low protein needs. Try to include at least two food groups at a snack and three to four at a meal. The five food groups are fruits, veggies, grains, protein, and calcium-rich foods like dairy.

When: Try to have a somewhat predictable routine. Most children do well when they eat every two to four hours. This often looks like breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, and for some families a bedtime snack depending on what time dinner and bedtime are. Only water should be offered between meals and snacks to ensure they have a good appetite when eating time comes. A predictable routine for meals and adequate sleep help with behavior. 

Where: A few reliable locations that are easy to clean up and have limited distractions. Eating in front of the TV often causes mindless eating, where kids don’t notice they’re full. Being in view of all their toys can cause difficulty focusing on eating enough. 

Kids: If they eat and how much. 

For many parents, this is much scarier than any Halloween trick! Trusting their child to eat enough. Many are concerned about not eating enough, others are concerned about eating too much, and some parents worry about both for different children. Babies are born knowing hunger and fullness cues. If we follow their lead and provide a healthy eating environment, they will continue to listen to those cues and grow into bodies that are right for them. Parents also often forget how often children eat! By dinner time parents are often sitting down for the first time and eating a big meal and they expect kids to do the same. Dinner also tends to be a more complicated meal, requiring utensils kids may not have much practice with and more complex flavors that can overwhelm some kids, especially when they have spent all day playing, learning, and eating three to four times already and are just tired by this time. Trying new foods and practicing with utensils at meals and snacks earlier in the day can make sure their brains are rested and ready to learn the skills with new utensils and get the nutrition they need. Kids are also known to live on what seems like air for two to three days and then eat like an NFL player. Unlike adults, their needs vary greatly day to day based on activity and if they’re in a growth spurt. Have kids sit at the table while everyone eats, for at least a few minutes, whether they eat or not. Don’t push, bribe, or demand they eat a certain number of bites. Serve very small portions to reduce food waste, allow them to eat nothing, or ask for second or third helpings as long as there is enough for everyone. 

So where do we fit sweets in? The Ellyn Satter model recommends serving a small amount of sweets with dinner, not after, and never as a reward. This doesn’t mean you have to serve chocolate cake every night; remember, parents are in charge of what they serve. But when you choose to serve dessert, by serving it with the meal, kids learn it’s not a special food —nothing to get excited over — and reduces food fixation and disordered eating habits. Even if they eat it first, a few M&M’s won’t ruin your kid’s appetite. 

At some point, kids also need to learn how to regulate their intake of sweets when they’re given open access. Halloween is a perfect time to do this! While keeping that same meal structure of three meals and two to three snacks, pick one snack every so often that they can have as much candy as they want. If you’re restricted in the past, it may take a little time for them to learn to self regulate, and that’s okay. This is learning skills for a lifetime; a few weeks of snacks won’t ruin their health forever. What most parents find is when it’s no longer a big deal, kids will regulate pretty well. Of course, it can be hard for parents to truly make it ‘not a big deal’ even when they try.

Parents want their kids to be healthy, but they face mixed messages about what is and isn’t healthy and what moderation is. Throw in restrictive and negative language that is so common around food and bodies, and it’s incredibly difficult to know how to move forward. 

If you feel you need support to ensure you and your child build a healthy relationship with food and their bodies, the dietitians at Huntsville Nutrition Collective specialize in working through these challenges with children and adults. 

Carmen Moyers, RD, CSP, LD, Pediatric Dietitian

Carmen Moyers, RD, CSP, LD
Pediatric Dietitian

Wolraich ML, Wilson DB, White JW. 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, D.W., Milich, R. Effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactions. J Abnorm Child Psychol 22, 501–515 (1994).