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Posted at 11:32 AM ET, 11/ 1/2010

Willingham: How sugar really affects kids

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
Halloween has come and gone, and many parents of younger children are eyeing large bags of loot with apprehension.

Some parents feel that sugar sends their kids bouncing off the walls, and some studies seem to support this impression; kids seemed to get more active and more naughty after eating a sugary snack. But these are mostly “open label” studies--i.e., ones in which the kids knew that they were getting sugar and the parents did too.

So it may not have been the sugar per se that led to the behavior. Perhaps kids felt some license to act out after eating something sweet, because they knew their parents expected bad behavior. Or perhaps their parents interpret relatively neutral behavior as bad when they know their kids have just had some sugar.

A stronger type of study is one in which no one--the kids, the parents, or the experimenter--knows whether the snack the child ate was sweetened with sugar or with aspartame. (A research assistant keeps track.) More than a dozen such studies have been conducted, and they show that sugar does not cause hyperactive behavior or behavior problems, even when the researchers make a point of testing kids whose parents say they are sensitive to sugar.

Sugar has also been tested for its impact on kids diagnosed with ADHD. Again, there seems to be no effect.

One interesting study examined the effect of parental expectation. Thirty-five boys (aged 5 to 7) who were reported by their mothers to be sugar sensitive were given a drink sweetened with aspartame. Half of the moms were told that the drink had a lot of sugar in it, and half were told it had none.

Mothers and sons then interacted on several tasks (e.g., building a Lego house together). Moms who were told their children had had sugar later rated their sons’ behavior during this interaction as more hyperactive.

So one probable source of the sugar effect is the confirmation bias. We see what we expect to see.

Another interpretation is that parents’ judgment is sometimes a misattribution. Kids really do get more active (and rowdy) in some situations when they are also having sugary snacks, but the situations when they have a lot of sugar are often situations with low structure and lots of stimulation: a birthday party, an outing to a fair, and the like. It’s not the sugar that’s behind kids getting a little crazy; it’s the excitement and the novelty.

And it may not even need to be something as unusual as a birthday party. One could imagine that, for a few kids, a break from routine (e.g., candy instead of crackers at snack time) is extra exciting, and perhaps signals a more general relaxing of classroom rules.

So what’s the bottom line?

There’s pretty good evidence that there is not a physiological effect of sugary snacks on kids’ behavior, and some of parent’s perception of an effect is probably just that--perception. But there could also be a psychological effect whereby sugary snacks are associated with other factors such as a less regulated atmosphere or kids’ perception of a less well regulated atmosphere.

To my knowledge, that possibility hasn’t been studied.

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 1, 2010; 11:32 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Health, Learning  | Tags:  daniel willingham, health, sugar, sugar and health, sugar and kids, sugar and learning  
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Comments

Good research is always very useful and this one looks fairly thorough.
What it is up against is the many, many personal anecdotes by parents who watched a transformation in their child after removing all refined sugar from the family diet. That is quite a challenge, given the still increasing use of sweeteners, both "natural" and synthetic, in commercial foods.
Perhaps the rigor and organisation required to control the diet unconsciously added to influencing the child's behavior of calming down. Try quantifying and qualifying that, researchers!
I do have my own story of tremendous change to calmer and more focused behavior with one of my daughters when five yeras old. Kindergarten and home went much better for her and us!
If it works, don't knock it.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | November 1, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Take a look at artificial colors and additives in food in relation to hyperactivity related effects.

Lancet. 2007 Nov 3;370(9598):1560-7.

Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial.
McCann D, Barrett A, Cooper A, Crumpler D, Dalen L, Grimshaw K, Kitchin E, Lok K, Porteous L, Prince E, Sonuga-Barke E, Warner JO, Stevenson J.

School of Psychology, Department of Child Health, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed

While the sugar may be somewhat benign, the AFCAs may be the real stinker.

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 1, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

There are other reasons why cutting out sugary snacks may affect youngster's behavior. First, the sugary snacks may contain caffeine. Since I quit drinking caffeine in the evening, I've noticed that not only will a caffeinated soft drink keep me awake, but so will a cup of hot chocolate at bedtime. (I used sugar-free drinks, by the way, so the sugar can't possibly be the culprit.)

Second, is it possible that a child's behavior changes when sugar and junk food is eliminated from his diet because he was eating this in place of a more balanced diet?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | November 1, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

There are other reasons why cutting out sugary snacks may affect youngster's behavior. First, the sugary snacks may contain caffeine. Since I quit drinking caffeine in the evening, I've noticed that not only will a caffeinated soft drink keep me awake, but so will a cup of hot chocolate at bedtime. (I used sugar-free drinks, by the way, so the sugar can't possibly be the culprit.)

Second, is it possible that a child's behavior changes when sugar and junk food is eliminated from his diet because he was eating this in place of a more balanced diet?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | November 1, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

I've seen the research, but...

I taught special education the last ten years of my career. After several disastrous events, we established a no sugary treat policy for the class. While other factors may be the cause, we found that removing sugary treats improved our kids' behavior (and our peace of mind) during parties, spelling treats, etc.

Posted by: EdNews1 | November 1, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

This was a really interesting story especially since Halloween was yesterday. I would have to admit as a former childcare provider and a current education student, I had the same assumption as the mothers in these studies. I think that it a good study that can help teachers, parents, babysitters, etc. It goes along with the fact that students will act as you expect them to. If you give them candy and expect them to get hyper, then they most likely will. Students know what teachers expect of them. Even if you don't say it.

Posted by: waytoteach | November 1, 2010 8:56 PM | Report abuse

My mother, an RN, has said this for years. I've been afraid to quote her on it because of the common assumption about how sugar impacts kids. Thanks for sharing all these links.

Posted by: Jenny04 | November 1, 2010 9:18 PM | Report abuse

The study and research put upon the simplest things, such as does sugar affect a childs behavior is very viable not only to parents but as well as teachers. As a future educator, many biases and urban legends are thrown around us before we set foot in the field. Reading this article and looking back at all the opinions thrown around about sugarand kids, I'm glad to know that sugar given to children is more of a mental state rather than a chemical effect in thier body. It boils down to mind over matter with the effects of sugar and how it has no connection to hyperactive behavior rather than a simple mental pleasure.

Posted by: simond1 | November 1, 2010 10:01 PM | Report abuse

The study and research put upon the simplest things, such as does sugar affect a childs behavior is very viable not only to parents but as well as teachers. As a future educator, many biases and urban legends are thrown around us before we set foot in the field. Reading this article and looking back at all the opinions thrown around about sugarand kids, I'm glad to know that sugar given to children is more of a mental state rather than a chemical effect in thier body. It boils down to mind over matter with the effects of sugar and how it has no connection to hyperactive behavior rather than a simple mental pleasure.

Posted by: simond1 | November 1, 2010 10:02 PM | Report abuse

The study and research put upon the simplest things, such as does sugar affect a childs behavior is very viable not only to parents but as well as teachers. As a future educator, many biases and urban legends are thrown around us before we set foot in the field. Reading this article and looking back at all the opinions thrown around about sugarand kids, I'm glad to know that sugar given to children is more of a mental state rather than a chemical effect in thier body. It boils down to mind over matter with the effects of sugar and how it has no connection to hyperactive behavior rather than a simple mental pleasure.

Posted by: simond1 | November 1, 2010 10:02 PM | Report abuse

My sister an RN told my family this same information years ago. We would ask her if she was crazy giving them sugary things late at night, but she said it's not the sugar that gets them wired it's the excitement around the sugar. As long as my students can stay focused then I won’t mind if they have a sugary treat in the afternoon. Sometimes it helps them to stay on track when they have candy in their mouth because they can’t talk. Very interesting study.

Posted by: salatin2 | November 1, 2010 10:34 PM | Report abuse

Teachers at my kids' school removed candy from lunches the day after Halloween, justifying this (illegal) action with the words, "Sugar makes you unable to concentrate on your work," and the false, "There is no candy allowed in lunches at school."

These were not lunch boxes bursting with Mars bars. For some of these kids, the quarter-sized Starburst is an annual treat in a packed lunch.

I'm not boo-hooing the "fun" removed from the lunches, just pointing out an unfortunate action affecting children's and families' relationships with their teachers. Which affects learning.

Thanks for this piece.

Posted by: dcparent | November 2, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

I find this research very interesting because I work at a preschool with 4-year olds, and this pertains directly to me. I agree with the fact that when children get a sugary snack it makes them more excited in general. I know in my class, when the children get cookies for snack instead of crackers, they are more excited and in turn, more rambunctious. I have never quite believed that sugar was the culprit, though, because I think that for the most part, children can control their behavior. It is unfair, to the parents and the children, to blame the bad behavior on sugar. However, if taking sugary snacks out of schools improves the overall learning, I am all for it. I know this is not an issue discussed in this article, but it is a big issue in education right now. Even if the sugar itself doesn't make children more hyper, the thought of the said sugar very easily might.

Posted by: benningtoc1 | November 2, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

I find this research very interesting because I work at a preschool with 4-year olds, and this pertains directly to me. I agree with the fact that when children get a sugary snack it makes them more excited in general. I know in my class, when the children get cookies for snack instead of crackers, they are more excited and in turn, more rambunctious. I have never quite believed that sugar was the culprit, though, because I think that for the most part, children can control their behavior. It is unfair, to the parents and the children, to blame the bad behavior on sugar. However, if taking sugary snacks out of schools improves the overall learning, I am all for it. I know this is not an issue discussed in this article, but it is a big issue in education right now. Even if the sugar itself doesn't make children more hyper, the thought of the said sugar very easily might.

Posted by: benningtoc1 | November 2, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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