Sugar High on Halloween? Not a Ghost of a Chance

One Doesn't Become Hyper Because of Too Much Sugar.

Posted Oct 26, 2014

The kids are hyper. They have spent the last two hours running from house to house, collecting candy goodies in their plastic pumpkins. Now they are either stuffing the miniature candies in their mouths or trying quickly to hide them before being told to stop eating, brush their teeth and go to bed. Observing this, you, the parent, have two thoughts: How many candies can I sneak out of little Johnny or Betty’s cache without he/she noticing they are gone and, there they go again, hyper from all the sugar.

Take all the candy you can or go trick and treating yourself. But don’t assume that the mini Snickers or Kit Kat bars your kids have just scarfed down are making them wild. Rowdy they may be, but not because of the sugar.

The idea that sugar causes hyperactivity in children has the same scientific credibility as believing the earth is flat, or that the sun revolves around it the planets. Nonetheless, it is believed in so strongly that it may take a few centuries before this untrue “Fact” is finally put to rest.

The rebuttal to this claim that sugar does not cause hyperactivity is as follows: Those studies are funded by the sugar industry, the data are manipulated, and my children are bouncing off the walls after eating sugar.

It is true that after your children spend a couple of hours running, laughing up and down the streets of your neighborhood with friends, consuming small amounts of caffeine in the chocolate treats, and then staying up well beyond their bedtimes, that they may indeed be hyperactive.

But if you took your child into a research laboratory, as many scientists have done, and given Johnny or Betty water containing sugar or water that tastes as sweet but contains only an artificial sweetener and measured hyperactivity, what you would find is—drum roll, please—nothing. No behavior exhibited would meet the definition of hyperactivity. The only behavioral change might be, on the contrary, a quieter child content to look at a book or a screen. The sugary water would not only have not caused them to run around and jump over chairs, but might have had the opposite effect of making them drowsy.

As summarized by John Clayborn on his blog site, Athenaeum Electronics, several studies over the past 20 years in different labs with different researchers and children as subjects, have come up with the same conclusion: No sugar high, no sugar rush, no sugar hyperactivity…it doesn’t exist. He recommends a book by Dr. Aaron Carroll and Dr. Rachael Vreeman, Don’t Swallow Your Gum: Myths, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies about Your Body and Health, that gives further evidence for the misconception about kids and sugar highs.

In addition to the studies referenced by Mr. Clayborn are others that go back to the l980’s. Judith Rapoport, a psychiatric researcher at the NIH, showed that young children became calmer after consuming a sugary drink. (Rapoport, Judith, Journal of Psychiatric Research 17; 187-191. 1982). Another well-respected researcher, Dr. Bonnie Spring (in the interest of full disclosure, we have done several research projects together at MIT), also showed that eating sugary foods might bring about fatigue, but certainly not hyperactivity. (Spring B, Chiodo, J et al, “Psychobiological effects of carbohydrates”, Journal of Clinical Psychology 50; 27-33,l989).

Obviously there are good reasons for not eating Milk Duds, Hersey’s Kisses and candy corn for dinner, regardless of your age. If you are shipwrecked on a Pacific atoll and have nothing to eat except a container of orange-colored Peeps, the sugar will keep you alive until you manage to figure out how to get your cell phone working and call for help. But if you jump up and down with joy after eating a handful of the marshmallow Peeps pumpkins, I don’t think anyone would assume you are high on sugar. The “rush” you would be experiencing is the realization that you might live another day on that deserted island.

Maybe kids who have not been allowed to eat candy 364 days of the year experience the same joy, delight, and exuberance when allowed unmonitored access to candy on Halloween night. Moreover, is it possible that their hyperactivity may be motivated, in part, by the need to hide all their goodies before you can confiscate them for another 364 days?

One reason that research often comes up with conclusions that differ from our everyday observations or anecdotes is that studies are designed to eliminate situations that might muddy or confuse the results. How can one compare the effects of children dressing up in costumes, going to Halloween parties, eating candy and staying out beyond their bedtime with coming into a study laboratory and being given a sugar or non sugary drink and then having their moods tested? The latter situation will reveal only the effect of sugar on behavior and not the effect of Halloween night on behavior.

However, this not an endorsement of transforming Halloween into an annual candy binge day. Candy doesn’t cause hyperactivity, but it is never a substitute for healthy treats. That being stated, I have a feeling that kale chips just won’t ever substitute for M&M’s.