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Sugar and hyperactivity – a sticky subject

Publish date: 08/04/2014

sugar-and-hyperactivityAlthough the theory that too much sugar makes children hyperactive doesn’t stand up to the rigour of scientific tests published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, many parents say that they’ve seen proof in their own kids who go wild shortly after wolfing down a jam butty.

Sugar rush

When we eat sweet things our blood sugar rises. 

When we eat refined sugar – the granulated stuff that we stir into tea and coffee and which is added to many of the foods we eat – it rapidly enters our bloodstream.

From here, it soon reaches our brain. So, according to Medline, it’s conceivable that it could have an effect and make a child more active.

But a child who is ‘hyper’ doesn’t necessarily have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

Young children are naturally excitable and easily distracted. 

However, according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) if these features are excessive for a child's age and general developmental level, and affecting their daily life, they may indicate ADHD and it’s worth getting it checked out by your doctor.

Sweet tooth

Although our brain needs sugar or glucose for energy, the hit we get from sugary snacks is short-lived, peaking and then quickly dropping off again. And according to the NHS this sugar ‘crash’ can leave us feeling lethargic and irritable. 

Carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta, give a more steady release of sugar, but like bees to honey, we’re drawn to sweet-tasting foods

Prof David Nutt, Chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD) and Head of the Department of Neuropsychopharmacology and Molecular Imaging at Imperial College London, explains: ‘There is not currently scientific evidence that sugar is addictive, though it is well known that sugar has psychological effects, including producing pleasure, and these are almost certainly mediated via brain reward systems. Refined sugar gets into the brain faster than sugar from starch and we know from drugs that the faster substances get into the brain, the bigger the hit.’

Many children and adults in the UK eat too much sugar. According to the British Dietetic Association, much of this is hidden in the food we eat.

Eat less sugar

According to Public Health England, sugar makes up about 15 per cent of a child’s diet and nearly 12 per cent of an adult’s. Currently, UK recommendations say sugar should take up no more than 10 per cent of our intake. New advice from the World Health Organization goes further, recommending this be slashed to just five per cent. This includes added sugar and free sugars in fruit juices and honey.

Too much sugar is bad for you, as Alison Tedstone, Director of Nutrition and Diet at Public Health England, explains: ‘Consuming too many sugary foods and drinks can cause tooth decay.’

‘In addition, consuming too many calories including those from sugar can lead to being overweight or obese which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.’

Sometimes it’s not obvious which foods contain a lot of sugar. Yoghurts, pasta sauces and even some bread can contain lots of added sugar.

Here’s how to keep tabs on how much sugar your family eats.

How to cut down

  • Swap sugary foods, such as sweets, cakes and biscuits, for healthier alternatives such as crackers or rice cakes
  • Beware sugary soft drinks – according to the British Dietetic Association a 500ml bottle of fizzy drink for a six year old is like an adult taking 30 teaspoons of sugar! Instead, go for water or diluted unsweetened drinks.
  • Check nutritional labels on food – if sugar is listed as one of the first ingredients then that food is high in sugar. Some products carry traffic light colour warnings, with red meaning high. 
  • Do more cooking at home – that way you’ll know exactly what’s in it and you can control how much sugar you use
  • Try using Marmite, ham, hummus or low-fat cream cheese in sandwiches rather than jam or honey
  • Be careful about the breakfast cereals you buy because some are loaded with sugar. Porridge is a healthy option – but resist adding too much sugar to it!
  • Eat plenty of fruit and veg, but remember – dried fruits, such as raisins, are high in sugar


The Effect of Sugar on Behavior or Cognition in Children

Hyperactivity and sugar

UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition to debate recommended sugar levels

WHO opens public consultation on draft sugars guideline

Sugar Food Fact Sheet– British Dietetic Association

Blood Brain Barrier and Cerebral Metabolism


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

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