What’s Up With That Sugar Myth, Mamas?

Dear Mamas,
I was disappointed when I read the post about sugar and how it doesn’t really cause hyper behavior. My son is 9, and he and his friends like to pile into our house after school. I used to try and have warm chocolate chip cookies or brownies waiting (yes, I was competing for Mother of the Year) until I noticed that within 20 minutes of chowing down the group was bouncing off the walls. Now I make healthier stuff like peanut butter on toast or popcorn, and they definitely are calmer and better behaved since I made the change. My own ‘in-house’ research tells me that the experts have it wrong here. What do you think?

Skeptical Sarah

Dear Sarah,

You’re in great company. Mamas got LOTS of pushback on this one. Almost any mother you talk to has a story involving sweets, her child, and out-of-control crazy behavior (check out elefeminate in the comments). To be perfectly frank, I can’t fully explain the gap between the anecdotal evidence and the clear research results, but maybe I can throw out a few possibilities.

First, maybe it’s not just sugar in general that’s the culprit, but specific types of treats — most notably chocolate, which contains lots of caffeine. You point to chocolate chip cookies and brownies as examples, and they certainly contain enough caffeine to raise heart rates and energy levels. Colas and other caffeine-laden drinks and snacks will do the same.

Or, maybe there’s a confounding variable that tends to travel along with sugary treats. I know that any time a group of my sons’ friends gather at our house the testosterone rush is wild and furious. It wouldn’t matter if I served them valium with a warm milk chaser, boys are boys. This theory doesn’t really mesh with your observation of baked goods vs. other choices, but it may be a factor.

We certainly know (and the research supports) that the sudden mood crash noted in kids and adults a couple of hours after a big sugar load is real. This is related to a sudden increase in blood sugar immediately following the ‘meal’, and the just-as sudden fall that inevitably follows.

Finally, it’s always possible that the research results do not reflect what happens in real life. The literature is full of examples of medical knowledge that was later proven to be mistaken. Remember when we thought infants should ALWAYS be put to sleep on their bellies? Maybe kids respond differently in a study setting than they do in the natural environment. Or maybe the measures of behavior used by researchers aren’t sensitive to the changes being noticed by moms. Your living room doesn’t remotely resemble a professional research environment.

Believe me, I’m cynical by nature. Sometimes research results reflect what the investigator was looking to find, but in this case the sheer number of well designed studies makes me take those results seriously. Having covered all that ground, let me repeat: There are plenty of reasons to limit the amount of sugar and nutrition-less junk our kids put in their mouths. Whether it makes them wacky or not, that stuff brings little value to the party.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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