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Does Sugar Actually Make Kids Hyper?

Photograph by Twenty20

We're quick to blame our kids' loss of focus or bedtime mutiny on sweets. But experts say the culprit probably isn't sugar. The decades-long myth that sugar causes hyperactivity was put to the test by Dr. Mark Wolraich, a pediatrics professor at Oklahoma University Health Sciences.

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While the study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1994 and made national news, it has since faded from public memory.

Wolraich reviewed 15 articles on sugar and artificial sweetener and found that children's hyperactivity often relates to changes in their routine, like Halloween.

"If you have the belief their behavior is worse and those are usually times when they get large amount of sugar, it's not surprising you would see the difference," Wolraich told CBC News.

Psychologists, like David Benton, professor of psychology at Swansea University, agree, saying parents are mixing the fact that sugar gives energy with feeling energetic and worsening the problem by expecting misbehavior.

"Sugar does not increase the activity of children. It is the expectation of the parents. Children get hyperactive at party, running around wild and winding themselves up. That is the problem distinguishing one thing from another. The child knows they can let themselves go so they do," said Benton.

In fact, Benton pointed to studies that have shown myth-busting effects. Children given sugary drinks at school actually concentrated more fully and performed better in tests, for example.

But that's not to say that we should give kids sugary drinks—or too much sugar in general. A recent study of 43 children by Dr. Robert Lustig's team at University of California San Francisco showed dramatic health improvements when they cut back sugar for just 10 days.

All of the kids dramatically reduced their risk of diabetes in the short amount of time. Triglyceride levels decreased by 33 points on average, the bad cholesterol (LDL) dropped 5 points and diastolic blood pressure also dropped.

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Table sugar, sucrose, is made up of equal parts glucose and fructose. But while glucose is the preferred energy source, fructose metabolizes in only the liver, with the extra converting into fat. The excess fat spills into the blood stream and increases the risk of heart diseases.

These days, we "consume 130 pounds a year—or roughly 1/3 of a pound every day (of sugar). Our livers, however, have not evolved to keep pace with the staggering increase. As a result, a sugary drink hits your liver like a tsunami wave," writes Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

So while sugar might not be making the kids bounce off the walls, you might want to rethink the holiday desserts.

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