The root of this myth may lie in 1922 when pediatrician WR Shannon removed sugar from the diet of a group of children and noted that they became less restless and irritable. However, the sugar/hyperactivity link was made more public when pediatrician and allergist Benjamin Feingold published The Feingold Dietin 1973. He had been studying the effects of food colourings and preservatives on hyperactive children and recommended that parents avoid any foods containing additives. Sugar was not directly mentioned but the war against additives had begun and led to numerous publications, including Dufty’s Sugar Blues (1975) comparing sugar and its production to that of heroin.
What’s nearer the truth?
In the mid 80’s studies refuting any link between sugar and hyperactivity began to emerge and by 1995. Wolraich et al’s definitive meta-analysis of 16 replicable studies stated that there was no such link. Although Wolraich’s study made headlines across America, it was largely forgotten within a few years.
Why is this myth still believed?
The current anti-sugar movement has come about in an era of mass communication with countless bloggers and SM campaigns wanting to stake their claim. The sugar/hyperactivity myth continues as mummy bloggers (even Gwyneth Paltrow) tell anecdotes of when their sugar-high kids were climbing the walls, unaware that there is no connection.
Interestingly though, back in 1994, Hoover and Milich examined numerous parent/child interactions and noted that parents who were told their child had consumed sugar, when in fact they hadn’t, exhibited more controlling critical behaviour towards the child. This has been termed ‘the expectancy effect’ and could explain how a parent’s own behaviour might be contributing to child + sugar = hyperactivity.
A diet overloaded with sugars is clearly dangerous to health and reducing consumption should result in a reduction in obesity and tooth decay. However, it will have very little to do with addressing hyperactivity in children.