The Relationship between Sugar and Behavior in Children

The Relationship between Sugar and Behavior in Children

The effect of sugar intake on children’s behavior is a hotly debated topic in pediatrics. Parents and educators often contend that sugar and other carbohydrate ingestion can dramatically impact children’s behavior, particularly their activity levels. Physicians, on the other hand, have looked at controlled studies of sugar intake and have not found hypoglycemia or other blood sugar abnormalities in the children who are consuming large amounts of sugar.

An interesting article appears in the February 1995 edition of the Journal of Pediatrics. In contrast with other research teams, William Tamborlane, M.D., et al, of Yale University report a more pronounced response to a glucose load in children than in adults.

It is commonly acknowledged that as blood glucose levels fall, there is a compensatory release of adrenaline. When the blood glucose level falls below normal, the resulting situation is called hypoglycemia. Signs and symptoms that accompany this include shakiness, sweating, and altered thinking and behavior.

Tamborlane and his colleagues demonstrated that this adrenaline release occurs at higher glucose levels in children than it does in adults. In children it occurs at a blood sugar level that would not be considered hypoglycemic. The peak of this adrenaline surge comes about four hours after eating. The authors reason that the problem is not sugar, per se, but highly refined sugars and carbohydrates, which enter the bloodstream quickly and produce more rapid fluctuations in blood glucose levels.

A recent study supports the idea that a breakfast with a lower sugar load may improve short-term memory and attention span at school (Physiol Behav, 2007; 92: 717-24). Giving your child a breakfast which contains fiber (oatmeal, shredded wheat, berries, bananas, whole-grain pancakes, etc.) instead of loads of refined sugar should keep adrenaline levels more constant and make the school day a more wondrous and productive experience. Packing her/his lunch box with delicious fiber-containing treats (whole-grain breads, peaches, grapes, a myriad of other fresh fruits, etc.) may turn afternoons at home into a delight.

Dr. Alan Greene

Dr. Greene is the founder of DrGreene.com (cited by the AMA as “the pioneer physician Web site”), a practicing pediatrician, father of four, & author of Raising Baby Green & Feeding Baby Green. He appears frequently in the media including such venues as the The New York Times, the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, & the Dr. Oz Show.

  1. Morgan

    My brother becomes a very intolerant angry person when he has sugar. One day I was really angry and intolerant and I noticed that I had had more sugar than usual but I thought back to other occasions when I had lots of sugar and it didn’t affect me. What is it in kids that cause these different behavior changes and why don’t they always happen? I am 13 and my brother is 9

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  2. Amandeep Kaur

    How many quantity of sugar we give to our 14 months baby

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    • Amandeep, I’m not concerned about the sugar that is naturally present when a 14-month-old eats a piece of fruit or drinks a glass of milk. It’s ‘added sugar’ or ‘free sugar’ I’m concerned about: the sugar that’s either added into foods or that’s concentrated when fiber or other ingredients are taken out (as in fruit juice).

      Children don’t need any added sugar. If they do get it, I agree with the American Heart Association’s recommendation that they average no more than 3 or 4 teaspoons a day. This would be 12g to 16g on a nutrition label. For comparison, just 1 tablespoon of typical ketchup can have a teaspoon of added sugar!

      This also means no more than 4 to 6 oz a day of fruit juice for kids up to age 6.

      responsiblefoods.org is a great resource to learn more about sugar and kids. I’m on their Board.

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  3. cris

    What is the proper diet for ADHD at age 6?

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  4. Rain Waters

    There is no debate necessary here. Any refined sugar inxs of 4 grams drives preschoolers insane period.. Denial of this obvious connection to out of control behavior runs rampant here online. Medical doctors are the worst source of info around this topic. Most are bought and paid for by drug companies who profit from addiction to technological “feel good” poisons. Starting a child on a path of addiction should be classified as criminal behavior. Try detoxing your grandchildren at home and open your eyes to this truth

    Please, please please!

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  5. Mak P.

    Dr. Greene, I have a child that has “behavioral issues” who is 9 years old. He is in a special needs program at school. However in the last year it has become VERY obvious that his behavioral issues primarily occur when he has a sugary meal. This does not have to be pancakes or waffles, he also reactes to orange juice, goghurt etc. I have another boy and he has no reaction whatsoever to these foods. I am not a researcher however my anecdotal experience shows me that all children are different and some just cannot manage a sugary diet and the accompanying adrenaline rush. Everybody has their own individual reaction.

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    • Mark, This has been our experience as well. Of four kids, we could only detect behavior changes in one when high glycemic index foods were eaten. Not that high glycemic index foods are good for any of us, but certainly some kids have more trouble modulating behavior after eating them than other kids do. Thanks for sharing your observation.

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    • Tory Smith

      I have this same issue with one of my children and reading all the “studies” on-line stating that there is no scientific proof that sugar effects behavior is total BS!!!!

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  6. Dr. Greene. I am currently researching how sugar alter our moods. I’m also learning more about whether sugar is addictive. This blog post from you is very helpful for me.

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