Hyperactivity means an increase in movement, impulsive actions, being easily distracted, and shorter attention span. Some people believe that children are more likely to be hyperactive if they eat sugar, artificial sweeteners, or certain food colorings. Other experts disagree with this.
Some people claim that eating sugar (such as sucrose), aspartame, and artificial flavors and colors lead to hyperactivity and other behavior problems in children. They argue that children should follow a diet that limits these substances.
Activity levels in children vary with their age. A 2-year old is most often more active, and has a shorter attention span, than a 10-year old.
A child's attention level also will vary depending on his or her interest in an activity. Adults may view the child's level of activity differently depending on the situation. For example, an active child at the playground may be OK. However, a lot of activity late at night may be viewed as a problem.
In some cases, a special diet of foods without artificial flavors or colors works for a child, because the family and the child interact in a different way when the child eliminates these foods. These changes, not the diet itself, may improve the behavior and activity level.
Refined (processed) sugars may have some effect on children's activity. Refined sugars and carbohydrates enter the bloodstream quickly. Therefore, they cause rapid changes in blood sugar levels. This may make a child become more active.
Several studies have shown a link between artificial colorings and hyperactivity. On the other hand, other studies do not show any effect. This issue is yet to be decided.
There are many reasons to limit the sugar a child has other than the effect on activity level.
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.