The Science Behind: Sugar Highs

Every year, my middle school holds a Freshman Dance. Last school year, it was my turn to attend. At the dance, food was provided, but more than half of it was candy. Since I rarely get access to candy, I attacked. In school, I am a shy and quiet individual, but after one bag of Skittles, I was literally bouncing off the walls and dancing like an idiot. This so-called sugar high lasted until eleven, the end of the three-hour-long dance.

At the dance, I ate more candy than any other food, and eventually, I kept eating more because it was supposed to give me energy (Image Credit: Giphy).

Sugar highs may have come into being when in the 1940s health officials circulated the idea that sweets promoted hyperactivity. They hoped to ease the burden of sugar shortages during World War II. The idea of sugar highs became more popular in the 1970s when Dr. Benjamin Feingold — an American allergist — advocated the removal of food additives to treat hyperactivity in children. Sugar wasn’t mentioned in Dr. Feingold’s original list, but it was soon added due to the common belief that it affected behavior.

Feingold published a cookbook in 1979 that follows the Feingold Diet (Image Credit: Amazon).

In 1982, the National Institute of Health announced that there was no link between sugar and hyperactivity that had been scientifically proven. In 1995, Dr. Mark Wolraich led a meta-analysis — a combination of results from multiple studies — of the 23 most reliable studies on sugar’s effect. The statistician who worked on the paper said that “he had never had such consistently negative results.” Researchers wrote that “Sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children,” and “the strong belief of parents may be due to expectancy and common association.”

Dr. Mark Wolraich has done tons of research on sugar and hyperactivity, so if you want to learn more, you can go to: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed and search Wolraich ML[Author] (Image Credit: NCBI).

Sugar highs aren’t created by sugar, but by our imagination. In 1994, a study in the Journal for Abnormal Child Psychology assembled a group of 35 boys, aged between five and seven, whose mother said they were behaviorally sensitive to sugar. Some of the moms were told that their son had been given a large dose of sugar, and the rest of the moms were told their son had been given a placebo. In reality, all the boys had been given placebos. The moms were then filmed interacting with their sons. Moms in the group told their son had received a large dose of sugar rated their child as significantly more hyperactive when compared to the moms who thought their son had received a placebo. Also, behavioral observations from the tapes showed that moms who believed their son had a dose of sugar stayed closer to and tended to criticize, look at, and talk to their sons more.

Sadly, potato highs are not a real thing (Image Credit: Giphy).

In truth, granulated sugar has the same metabolic effect as simple carbohydrates, like potatoes and rice. Sugar doesn’t cause hyperactivity because your blood glucose level is well-regulated. Regardless of whether you just ate a Hershey bar or haven’t had sugar in eight hours, the amount of glucose coming to your brain will be relatively the same. The only reason for you to feel a difference in your energy level when consuming sugar is if you have low blood sugar. If your body doesn’t need the sugar you consumed, it will be converted into fat for storage.

If you ingest a lot of sugar at once, your insulin production will be overstimulated to regulate your blood sugar levels. All this insulin may cause hypoglycemia — low blood sugar, or, as it is more commonly called, a sugar crash (Image Credit: Healthline).

One reason for the false belief in sugar highs is that sweets are often eaten at places and events that are already exciting, like a school dance. And on top of the excitement, there is the expectation that eating lots of sweets triggers the infamous sugar high. This all causes the sugar-eater to unintentionally become hyperactive.

Basically, it isn’t the sugar that makes you hyper. You’re just so freaking excited! (Image Credit: Giphy).

Even though sugar isn’t linked to hyperactivity, that does not mean you are justified to eat as much as you want! Sugar is still certainly linked to obesity, diabetes, and cavities. Just remember, the next time you act crazy at an event where you ate a bit too much candy, don’t blame a sugar high, blame the awesome event.

Works Cited

Avery, Sarah. “The sugar high: fact or fiction.” Active, www.active.com/articles/the-sugar-high-fact-or-fiction. Accessed 17 Aug. 2017.

Fleming, Amy. “Do children really get sugar rushes?” The Guardian, 25 Feb. 2014, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2014/feb/25/do-children-really-get-sugar-rush-hyperactivity. Accessed 17 Aug. 2017.

Geggel, Laura. “Does Sugar Make Kids Hyper?” LiveScience, Purch, 15 Aug. 2016, www.livescience.com/55754-does-sugar-make-kids-hyper.html. Accessed 17 Aug. 2017.

Huynh, Nancy. “Does Sugar Really Make Children Hyper?” Yale Scientific, 1 Sept. 2010, www.yalescientific.org/2010/09/mythbusters-does-sugar-really-make-children-hyper/. Accessed 17 Aug. 2017.

Romm, Carl. “The Sugar High Is Actually Just a Parenting Myth.” Science of Us, New York Media, 16 Aug. 2016, nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/08/the-sugar-high-is-actually-just-a-parenting-myth.html. Accessed 17 Aug. 2017.

— Isabella S., Pennsylvania

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