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Thursday, October 3, 2019

Are Sugar Rushes Real?

Kids eating cotton candy at a fair.
Jose Luis Carrascosa/Shutterstock

It’s a common belief that sugar is the driving force behind hyperactivity in children, and the epitome of an afternoon pick-me-up. Yet, there’s no scientific evidence to support this idea— the “sugar rush” isn’t a thing.

Ask any parent, and they won’t deny it: when you give candy to a child, it’s like enrolling them in a parkour tournament. They run, they jump, they scream, they do endless cartwheels. It’s the ultimate test of any adult’s patience. It’s not surprising, then, that many parents only give sweets to their children as occasional treats.

The theory that sugar can boost your energy and mood isn’t new. For decades, we’ve sought sugary snacks to get through a long day or cheer up after a heartbreak. But is that really how sugar works, or is it all in our heads? Experts say it’s all just conjecture. 

The Link Between Sugar and Hyperactivity 

The 1970s was the first time sugar was linked to behavior. Allergist Benjamin Feingold created his eponymous elimination diet to prevent hyperactivity in children. Even if you’re unfamiliar with his name, you’re likely familiar with some of the concepts in Feingold’s elimination diet. He believed that you could alleviate—and eventually eradicate—the symptoms of ADHD if you avoided food additives like dyes and artificial flavoring. Feingold never formally prohibited sugar, but the mention of sweeteners was enough to instigate the fear of a connection between sugar and behavior.

Parents became vigilant, and candy manufacturers felt threatened. Scientists, on the other hand, were skeptical. 

It wasn’t long before things took a turn. The first to debunk the existence of the sugar rush was the National Institutes of Health in 1982. Then, a report in the medical journal Nutrition and Health concluded the allegations that sugar had any adverse effect on children were scientifically unfounded. 

Multiple studies in the 1990s further supported these statements. Two experiments tested the effects of aspartame and artificial sweeteners on children with ADHD, and neither found significant results.

One particularly interesting study alluded to a theory that the sugar rush was simply the materialization of parents’ fears, which results in poor parenting, and, eventually, hyperactive children. 

In 1994, researchers videotaped 35 mothers interacting with their children. All of the women claimed their kids were sensitive to sugar. They were split into two groups. One group was told their kids had been given sugar, and the other was told their kids hadn’t received any. Actually, all of the children were given a sugar-free placebo.

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