Watching your children run gleefully from door to door on Halloween, accumulating piles of candy and occasionally snacking on their loot, may have you convinced that they’re experiencing a “sugar high.”
This was probably a phrase you heard your own parents or other adults throw around whenever kids were full of sweets and being loud and acting — well, like kids.
For decades, parents have pinned their kids’ wild behavior on sweet treats. But while the concept of a “sugar high” is common, there’s no scientific evidence that eating sugar, even in large amounts, actually impacts children’s behavior.
“This myth is really persistent,” Dr. Janine Zee-Cheng, a pediatrician practicing in Indiana, told HuffPost.
While there has been some research suggesting a link between sugar and kids’ behavior, such as this 1995 study that showed kids’ adrenaline levels rose more than adults’ did after eating sugar, other studies have not replicated these findings.
One particularly well-designed study, published in 1994, followed 25 children ages 3-5 and 23 children ages 6-10 who were described by their parents as “sensitive to sugar.” One group of children was fed a high-sugar diet, another group a low-sugar diet that included aspartame (a sugar substitute also associated with hyperactivity), and a third group a low-sugar diet with saccharin (another sugar substitute considered a placebo by the study’s authors).
It was a double-blind study, meaning neither the families nor the researchers knew which diet each child was receiving. The children’s behavior and cognitive performance were evaluated weekly. The researchers found no significant differences in behavior or cognitive performance among “sugar sensitive” children who were placed on different diets.
Zee-Cheng estimates that “10-15 other studies have debunked” the idea of a sugar high. Yet here we are, nearly three decades later, worrying about the way all that candy is going to impact our kids’ behavior on Halloween night.
So how do our bodies really react when we eat sugar?
“Your blood sugar will go up and then your pancreas will release insulin,” said Zee-Cheng.
“Your insulin is going to kick in and process that sugar,” Dr. Jill Wright, a pediatrician at UNC Health, told HuffPost. The higher blood sugar level is short-lived.
The exception to this process would be if you have Type 1 diabetes and your pancreas doesn’t make insulin, meaning you would need to get it elsewhere (via injection). But rather than making you feel amped up, this clinically high blood sugar would make you feel unwell.
Noting that you sometimes see distance athletes like marathoners and cyclists consuming small packets of high-sugar “energy gel” while exercising, Wright said, “you definitely get an energy release from a source of carbs,” but “not a high like you would think of with a drug.”
This energy, however, would be mild and fleeting — think of a second wind mid-workout rather than mania.
So what is responsible for kids’ over-the-top behavior on special days like Halloween?
Just pure, kid excitement.
Zee-Cheng explained that the “caveat” to kids not having an actual sugar high is the very real possibility of a dopamine rush at the thrill of receiving and being allowed to consume treats.
Some people also believe that sugar can worsen the symptoms of children with ADHD, but this belief doesn’t have any research to back it up, either. Kids with ADHD don’t need to limit their sugar intake “any more than any other kids,” said Zee-Cheng.
Zee-Cheng noted that we might notice worse behavior in a child allowed to eat a high-sugar diet but that it would probably be the general permissiveness rather than the sugar itself that was to blame for any misbehavior.
Wright added that “if, as parents, you find that your child reacts a certain way to something they eat or drink, use that info to guide how to allow your kids to ingest things like that.” That refers to individual patterns, however, and not a population-wide phenomenon.
Both pediatricians advocated for moderation overall in kids’ sugar intake, but not necessarily on holidays that kids look forward to all year.
“You don’t need to be eating a cereal bowl full of M&M’s every day,” said Zee-Cheng. “But there are times [for exceptions].”
So whether it’s the candy, the costumes, or the thrill of being out late, let your kids enjoy celebrating Halloween and don’t blame the sugar for their high energy.
Do, however, be sure they brush their teeth before bed.