Does Sugar Really Make Kids Hyperactive?

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Folk wisdom says that sugar makes children hyperactive. But is this true? Slate medical columnist and pediatrician Dr. Sydney Spiesel talks with Madeleine Brand about the myths and reality of the "sugar rush."

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News it's DAY TO DAY. A lot of parents think that sugar makes their kids hyperactive. Dr. Sydney Spiesel is a Pediatrician and he writes about medical research for the online magazine Slate.

Syd always doubted that sugar is the villain but he's read a couple of studies that say there may be a link. And Dr. Spiesel joins us now from his office in Woodbridge Connecticut. Hi Syd.

Dr. SYDNEY SPIESEL (Pediatrician): Hi how are you?

BRAND: Fine thank you. Well tell us about this most recent study, it's out of Norway?

Dr. SPIESEL: It examined the effect of drinking sugared soft drinks on about 5,000 teenagers in Norway. It was done by a researcher names Lars Leann{ph} and his co-workers at the University of Oslo.

BRAND: Did find that there was a connection between hyper children and sugar?

Dr. SPIESEL: They did. What they found in the study was increased levels of what they call mental distress, which if you read it closely comes out to sort of depression. Increased levels of conduct problems in kids and increased levels of hyperactivity that largely increased as the amount of daily soft drink consumption increased.

BRAND: And so does this seal the deal for you does that convince you that there is indeed a link?

Dr. SPIESEL: Not a bit of it, for a number of reasons. One is that I think that there were real problems in the methodology of this study. For example the way that they did the study was they took these 5,000 teenagers and they just gave them questionnaires to fill in themselves. That they somehow were going to figure out from these questionnaires whether the kids were depressed or had conduct problems or hyperactivity levels. I don't know about you but I still remember when I was a teenager and if I was given a questionnaire like that who knows how I would have filled it in.

BRAND: Right it would change by the minute.

Dr. SPIESEL: Yes for sure, and according to the level at which I care to amuse myself.

BRAND: Does research on this topic often suffer from these kinds of problems?

Dr. SPIESEL: Well it's hard to understand these studies you know, because even if we put aside the question of methodology, there are other questions. I mean just because Norwegian kids take sugar, and you can find, you know - let's say we believe that they really are depressed or - is the sugar in the soft drink causing that or are they just - does reaching for a soft drink happen when you are depressed? If you've been drinking a lot of sugary drinks and it makes you fat, does that excess weight cause depression? And so it's hard to figure out the relation, whether this is just an association or really there is causation here.

BRAND: So are there any more other reputable studies out there?

Dr. SPIESEL: I came across a study done in 1995 by Dr. Bill Tamborlane and his group of Endocrinologist in the Yale department of Pediatrics. And that, I think, bears on this question in a serious way. He had 25 young kids and 25 young adults. And for each of them he gave them a slug of sugar and he measured what their blood sugar level - how their blood sugar level changed and what we already know is that when you give people a dose of sugar, the body responds by releasing insulin which causes the blood sugar level to drop. And what he found is was, that was actually the same for both kids and adults.

What was different is that in kids, when the blood sugar dropped to a low level, the hormone epinephrine was released and that caused the symptoms of shakiness and poor cognitive function - a number of things that have been related to sugar use, or at least to what most of the parents in my practice seem to think happens when you give kids sugar.

I don't know why it hasn't been done why Dr. Tamborlane's studies haven't been followed up more closely. I wish they had been it would provide a better answer.

BRAND: That's Dr. Sydney Spiesel he's a pediatrician and writer for Slate.com. Thank you Syd.

Dr. SPIESEL: Thank you.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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