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Harvard Medical School
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General Medical Questions
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Question : I have heard different opinions about whether too much sugar makes a child too active? What is the latest opinion? Does the sugar give them too much energy?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Henry H. Bernstein, D.O., is a senior lecturer in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition, he is chief of General Academic Pediatrics at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth and professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. He is the former associate chief of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital Boston.

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December 12, 2011
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A:

Think a bag of M&Ms can cause your child to bounce off the walls? You’re not alone. Many parents believe that sugar causes their kids to be hyperactive and have behavior problems. But scientific evidence suggests that there is no real connection between sugar and hyperactivity in healthy children.

There have been many studies to determine how sugar affects the way children act. But there’s been little or no connection between the two. So why do so many parents still believe this?

It may be that parents’ beliefs about sugar affect how they view their child’s behavior. In one study, children were separated into 2 different groups. All of them were given a sugar-free drink. But,

  • The mothers of one group were told that their child was given a drink with a lot of sugar.
  • The mothers of the other group were told that their child was given a drink with no sugar.

The mothers who were told that their child had the sugared drink rated their children as more hyperactive. Even though all of the children had the same sugar-free drink!

So parents may view their children as more hyperactive after eating sugar because that is what they expect to see. Not because the sugar is actually causing it.

Sugar may not cause hyperactivity in children. But there are other reasons to limit it in your child’s diet. For starters, foods that are high in added sugars are high in calories, but low in important nutrients. Sugary foods can damage teeth and cause cavities. Too much sugar can also lead to obesity.

As the saying goes, “everything in moderation.” A little sugar, especially when added to a food full of important nutrients (such as cereal or yogurt) won’t hurt your child. And it won’t cause him or her to become hyperactive either.

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