The next few weeks will be a sugary time. Grandma will make gingerbread cookies, a co-worker will bring in chocolate covered macaroons, your kitchen will fill up with bake sale goodies. And where there are sweets, there is an eager child close behind. Many parents assume that eating sugary foods gets their kids wound up, but research actually shows that this is a myth.
There have been at least 20 double-blind, placebo-controlled studies showing no difference between children’s behavior when they’ve had a dose of sugar – usually in the form of a sugar-sweetened drink – versus when they are fed a placebo drink with no sugar. Barbara Strupp, professor of nutritional sciences and psychology at Cornell University says that controlled studies have shown that not only does sugar have zero effect on behavior, it doesn’t adversely affect a child’s thinking or concentration; kids on a dose of sweets are not more distractible or unfocused. “The evidence is so strong and conclusive,” says Strupp, “that the link between sugar and hyperactivity is now simply a non-issue from a scientific perspective.”
So why do so many parents believe that sugar turns their little one into a jumping bean? Strupp thinks it may have to do with the context in which children are given sweets. Parents who limit sugar intake to special occasions might attribute their child’s buzz to the birthday cake, when it’s actually more about the thrill of finally having sweets and the excitement of the festivities. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Strupp. “Many parents believe that sugar is a stimulant, and as a result they limit sugar intake. When they do make the exception, the child probably will be excited, which reinforces the myth. Parties and family gatherings also tend to create heightened activity in children, which parents attribute to the sugar.”
Studies have actually shown that a mom’s belief about sugar changes the way she sees her kid’s behavior. In one study two groups of moms were told either that their child had received a sugar drink, or that the drink was sugar-free (in truth both were sugar-free). The moms who thought their child had had sugar rated them as significantly more hyperactive.
Even chocolate, which contains the known stimulant phenylethylamine, is unlikely to have a big effect on a child, because the amount of the stimulant in a serving of a chocolate cake isn’t enough to send a child bouncing off the walls. Strupp recommends not making a big deal out of sweets either way – so that they don’t become a forbidden fruit.
Of course there are plenty of reasons not to make sugar a staple in your child’s diet: it can replace nutritious foods; it’s linked to obesity and tooth decay; and it may even have an addictive quality. But don’t be afraid to let your little sugarplum have a piece of apple pie and some chocolate mousse when the family is digging in. If she resists bedtime, it’s not the sugar. She’s probably feeling the holiday spirit and there is too much fun to be had.