Boo! When the Sugar Monster Rears His Ugly Head: Is There a Link Between Sugar, Additives and Bad Behavior?

Posted October 31, 2008 by

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OK, I’ll admit it: Halloween scares me. The sheer amount of candy, sugar and neon dyes my son consumes in one night is enough to give me the shivers, because I know what’s coming next: crazed, wild-eyed, uncontrollable behavior. Although it still hasn’t been proven conclusively, I am convinced that too much sugar, along with all the food additives, worsens behavior. And I don’t think I’m alone in this — what parent hasn’t seen their child bouncing off the walls like a superball after eating a pack of Skittles? (You may have also heard about the study that came out last year in England that said that kids’ hyperactive behavior, especially those with ADHD or ADD, increases when they consume common food dyes and additives.)

Don’t get me wrong, I love Halloween as much as the next person and am definitely a fan of chocolate and candy myself, but I also have to admit that I dread the ginormous haul of loot that comes home with my son. My in-laws think I’m crazy for saying this — they tend to hand my son candy, cookies, and treats like they’re senior crack dealers on a mission. They can’t understand why he starts whizzing around the room and screaming incoherently like the Tasmanian Devil about 10 minutes after consuming these goodies. So far, it’s been impossible to get them to realize that yes, sugar and food dyes make Alex into a crazy, howling mini-werewolf.

Last Halloween was the validation of all my fears.  One night about a week after the holiday, I got a call from my sister-in-law in Virginia. As is my habit, I went to hide in the bedroom so we could actually talk. My son was happily watching a video, so I thought I had at least a good 30 minutes to catch up on the phone. What I’d forgotten was that Alex’s Halloween candy bag was still out on the counter…and there was a very large box full of styrofoam peanuts in the living room. By the time I came out a half an hour later, there was a trail of Snickers and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrappers leading directly to the (now empty) box of peanuts. Alex had spread every last little white plastic thing around the living room, mostly (as I heard him tell it, and then demonstrate) by jumping into the box repeatedly from the sofa.  Have you ever seen the effect of static electricity on said peanuts?  They were stuck EVERYwhere — to the rug, the furniture, his fleece pajamas, his hair…I even found some clinging to the walls like little white styrofoam caterpillars. One year later, and I’m still finding them on the undersides of the couch.

But this year it’s going to be different. I’m going to limit his sugar intake, offer him an apple instead of a Milky Way when he brings in his haul. (Yeah, right.) So here we go, another Halloween and another sugar bath for the kids. Be afraid, parents…be very afraid.

What do you think? Have you seen sugar or food dyes affect your child’s behavior? Or is this a bunch of hogwash concocted by neurotic, candy-phobic parents?

About

Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. Narmeen (Edit) Report

    I understand how you feel my child is really happy joy person when it comes to sweets he eats and eats until his tummy aches when I tell him to stop he carries on and never listens

    Reply
  2. sassymmm (Edit) Report

    With my 13 yearold, he can consume sugar bounce off the walls for about 20 Mon. Then he is knocked out for hours. His had no concrete diagnosis for either ADD/ADHD but had signs & symptoms. We monitor his intake or certain foods bit also educate him about the effects.

    Reply
  3. rad (Edit) Report

    As a 25 year old with ADHD, i can certainly say that sugar does affect my behaviour up to 24 hours after consumption. Im not sure about the food dyes but if i dont sweat enough (at least 30 min) after having sugar (ice cream, cakes, cookies…) i go in what i call standby mode. I become very impatient, i can not listen to anyone, i become aggressive and also i care less about the consequences of my actions. I tend to sleep more and my focus is completely shattered. However, i dont experience such with natural sugar e.g. Honey, dates, banana. As im a big fan of ice cream, i try having it in the evening and workout the next morning. Hope it could help

    Reply
  4. Shoaleh (Edit) Report

    You just described my dilemma. I have the same in-laws and I have the same issues with inappropriate television watching.
    The way sugar effects my daughter is to put her into a mild hypoglycemic mode. She gets all teary and emotional and can’t cope with anything at all. My husband and I have coined it the Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. When she has eaten some protein, she seems to manage the sugar better but it’s usually offered to her on an empty stomach or as a snack and then they wonder what is wrong with her. The problem is that it’s so hard to keep it away from them. There is school and other children homes and birthday parties and ugh! I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. What I have realized is that it is a highly addictive substance; not only for our children but ourselves and it’s in everything from bread to condiments. I might as well be serving her crack cocaine. The thing is that until she was 2, I never gave her any sort of sugar and it all began as she started spending longer alone visits with my in-laws. Now she wants a desert after every meal which of course I don’t give her but she asks anyway. I’ve decided to cut it out of her diet for 2 weeks and see what happens….it’s gonna be really hard since she visits the in-laws once a week….God give me strength.

    Reply
  5. mkyohr (Edit) Report

    This year at halloween and school parties we did something different. We told our kids(4 of them) that they could keep their candy for 24 hours and eat as much as they wanted but at the end of the 24 hours it would be thrown away. They thought this was great as we always limit and they sneak it. Once we did this they ate like crazy but at the end of the 24 hours 2 had stomach pain and 2 were just sick of it. They threw it away and I only had one 24 hour period to deal with the sugar and dye issues as opposed to 2 weeks or longer. This worked for us and now that is how we handle the sugar holidays and they all know it is only here for 24 hours. They have to be kids but I dont want to suffer.

    Reply
  6. Kathywik (Edit) Report

    I have found that my kids no longer care for alot of the Halloween candy and are more out for the fun of it. We split the candy they do collect immediately. I get half. Whichever half they pick, but it goes in a bowl on the table for anyone who stops by, but not them. While my son has not been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, sometimes I have to watch the sugar. Caffeine seems to almost slow him down, which can be a blessing, especially after he recruits the dog in creating chaos!

    Reply
  7. Ruth (Edit) Report

    I have a 7 yr old daughter with ADHD and multiple learning and processing disorders. I started a food journal when she was 3 to track the effects of different foods. Corn in any form is terrible! And it is hidden in many foods. Citric acid, added vitamin C and pectin are all derived from corn in commercial products. Gluten products–wheat, rye, barley, oats–also add to her hyperactivity,although we have found gluten-free oats which she can eat. Any preservative or artificial color will make her wacky off the wall. Corn products will make her oppositional. Dairy products will make her silly and unable to pay attention. She is very good about her diet. I make her sorbet from fruit, water and sugar, for an ice-cream like dessert. She can eat Enjoy Life chocolate chips (dairy-free, gluten-free, corn-free, nut-free), and Chocolove Chocolate bars (raspberry is her favorite) in very small quantities, and not near bedtime. Other than that, we eat healthy food–lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. It is not the worst thing in the world to give up junk food. Good luck to everyone working on a better diet!
    Ruth in Wilmington, DE

    Reply
  8. Sarah Newton Parenting Teens Expert (Edit) Report

    Great article. I work with lots of children in the UK and most of their behaviour can in a lot of ways be linked to food. There is some great research going into this in the UK. A great book for people is ‘They are what you feed them”.

    Keep up the good work

    Sarah

    Reply
  9. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor (Edit) Report

    Cindy, Maybe the key is “moderation in all things.” Unless your daughter is a diabetic or has a severe reaction to sugar, maybe letting her have sweets once in awhile is not so bad. I’ll tell you a little story: a good friend of mine was never allowed to have sweets as a child. It became a kind of “forbidden fruit” to her, and she ended up sneaking candy, etc. whenever she could. I think it became much bigger to her than it should have, simply because it was not allowed. So I try to limit my son’s sugar intake, but not forbid it completely. (Of course, as evidenced by the blog post above, it doesn’t always go according to plan!) Good luck, and let us know how it goes.

    Reply
  10. Cindy Siewert (Edit) Report

    I logic with my daughter that sugar is a killer and it can dictate your behavior toward others and herself. She tends to fluff me off and will spend her money on high sugar content junk.

    She asked once why she should drink water. She accepted the answer that it is because her body needs water and has no problem with drinking water instead of other beverages. It makes no sense that she chooses not to apply that logic to the statement that sugar is a killer and so she should leave it alone. Help.

    Reply
  11. Linda R (Edit) Report

    Thanks everyone, I’m getting so much info here. Our preschool teacher just uttered the ADHD word about our 4-year old son, (he’s exibiting most of the signs). I’m on a fact-finding mission, and my eyes have been opened by what I’ve been reading on this site.

    We eat well, sugar is a rare treat, but when he gets it, my son goes hyper. This Halloween he got 2 pieces of candy. But I didn’t think to link his emotional explosions, or his inability to listen to food or additives.

    I’m going to start tracking what he eats and his resultant behavior. I too would be interested if anyone out there has a list of foods/additives to avoid and sources for more information.

    Reply
  12. Amy (Edit) Report

    Doctors can’t acknowledge any suspicions they have about the connection between sugar/dyes and behaviour because it isn’t common practice backed up by numerous studies and endorsed by their associations. However, some doctors will give a general, “its probably a good idea to limit sugar” because of the childhood diabetes possible link.
    I think my son (7) backslides on behavior he was doing well at when eating sugar frequently. We went trick or treating and since then, bad news. I decided to be the ogre-mom and I threw out all but a few of his favorites. It will take him a day or two to finish and we’ll go back to trying to regain the good behaviors we lost.

    Reply
  13. Marsha (Edit) Report

    You know, my oldest daughter (the one I suspect is ADHD, or at the very least, has “Explosive Child” issues), cannot have even the tiniest bit of chocolate. She is also “allergic” to dairy products, but even vegan chocolate turns her into a psycho. Glassy eyes, mean, complete and utter emotional devastation, the whole works.

    Dairy affects her similarly but a bit milder. We don’t “allow” dairy but occasionally people forget and give her cheese flavored something or other, or they think that sherbert is safe. (It isn’t, it’s half dairy, half juice: sorbet is the all juice alternative)

    Her “allergy” isn’t acknowledged by pediatricians or anything, but I tell you, if you lived with her even a week and gave her the forbidden foods, you’d know what I mean.

    Candy, non -chocolate anyway, doesn’t seem to affect her too badly, anymore than extra sugar affects anyone else. I have blood sugar swings as I’ve aged, and sugar makes me pretty mean and crazy these days, too!

    Reply
  14. Linda Martin (Edit) Report

    I have thought about the dyes in candy and processed foods as well. Does anyone know what should be avoided? It may help my son. He is diagnosed with ADHD. Thanks

    Reply
  15. Julie (Edit) Report

    I completely agree with what everyone says about Halloween candy causing my children to go completely bonkers. I will say — and I’m trying to figure out how to say this without sounding high and mighty — that because my kids eat very well the rest of the year, they don’t really seem to want the candy that much (they’re 5 and 2, so maybe they don’t know better yet). They get excited about the candy, and they eat some on Halloween night, and some the next day, too. But here it is November 4, and they haven’t gone into their candy bags for two days now.

    I hadn’t thought about the fact that the food dyes make a difference, but I believe it. I personally have a bit of a chocolate habit (*cough* for the antioxidants *cough*), and have given them some plain, good chocolate, and it doesn’t affect them that much. But give them a gummy ear (by far the grossest “food” I have seen all year) and they are launching themselves off the living room furniture.

    Reply
  16. Linda Martin (Edit) Report

    As a teacher (and parent), I must say that any holiday – Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, etc. definitely makes a difference in many of my students’ behavior. They are off the walls! They can’t sit still, babble all period (middle school) and can become quite indignant when asked to do their normal work for the day. I am not against candy, but as one parent said above – let them eat what they want on Halloween or whatever holiday, but don’t let them bring it to school thereafter. While it may not affect ALL students, it definitely makes a difference in those with ADD and ADHD. Then there is the comedown from the chocolate and sugar and they are too tired to do their schoolwork.

    Reply
  17. Anne (Edit) Report

    I have 2 children with severe ADHD. Although their pediatrician says there is no merit to it, I am convinced that food additives ESPECIALLY Red dye #40 are the main cause of added ugly behavior. They both have tantrums and act completely out of control after eating processed foods and those with artificial flavors and colors. Once we made the connection on our own, we completely cut those things out their diet. Although it doesn’t help all of their behaviors, it certainly takes away “fuel for the fire”!

    Reply
  18. Kristine (Edit) Report

    I have read, or have had, supposed “experts” tell me that chocolate, sugar, corn syrup, additives, preservatives, and artificial colors DO NOT affect children’s behavior. Well, these “experts” must not have kids of their own, or they have children that don’t have any type of behavioral problems (lucky them!)! I have three girls, 4, 7, and 18. All three of them, as well as myself, have AD/HHHHHD. When my 18 year old was younger, give her the littlest piece of chocolate and she would get completely psychotic in a matter of one or two minutes! She was hyper enough as it was, but give her a piece of chocolate, and you could actually see her start to get this wild, glassy look in her eyes. Next would come the psychotic laughter and jumping across the living room furniture and running up and down the stairs with warp speed! That behavior was followed by a rapid mood change from happy to incredibly mean and defiant. She has passed that stage now (thank God!), but you can still see a change in her behavior when she has chocolate, even as an adult. My other two immediately get a bad case of ‘selective hearing’ when they have had ANY of that stuff. They literally ignore you (even if you grab them on one of their run-by’s and speak right in their faces)! They will run like screaming banshees through the house while wrestling and smashing into everything in their way (yes, they have broken many a toy during their episodes…). Try getting them to calm down and go to bed if their bedtime snack was a brownie! Ha! I would like to extend an invitation to any of those “experts” to come to my house at bedtime and watch my kids after a bowl of ice cream with chocolate syrup and sprinkles! LOL!

    Reply
  19. mary (Edit) Report

    yes i to have a 14 year old daughter that when she eats candy she turns into a monster! first she gets really
    hyper for awhile then the sugar high comes down then she’s the nastiest person.

    Reply
  20. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor (Edit) Report

    Rachelle, I just have to say wow — you have an amazing 14 year old! (I can’t even manage to say no to sugar and caffeine most of the time, and I’m an adult who should definitely have the hang of this by now!) I agree with everyone about the high fructose corn syrup, too — it’s in everything from ketchup to juice. I have a hunch that there’s a connection between all the sugar we’re consuming and the high rates of diabetes in kids these days.
    By the way, in our house, we limit our son’s Halloween candy to one per night. He usually forgets about it by mid-November and then we throw it away. We would never, for example, hide his candy bag in the back of the cabinet and break into it in moments of chocolate frenzy. No, that has never happened in my house. At least not this year. Yet. Ahem.

    Reply
  21. mandy (Edit) Report

    We have had great results with Feingold Diet. Sugar itself is not a problem for us.

    What we have learned is that everyone is different. If the Feingold Diet works for you, then go for it. If sugar is a problem for you, avoid it.

    What we have learned is that life is not one size fits all. Different foods and additives work for different people.

    Examples: One of my sons will almost immediately end up with a migraine headache if he gets into the preservative sodium benzoate (common in pickles and sodas). I get ill with sulfite and sulfate preservatives and am also allergic to sulfa drubs. A girlfriend of mine becomes very ill from corn (high fructose corn syrup is out) and sugar cane, but she can tolerate beet sugar and honey just fine.

    To help us figure out what were problems foods for us, we kept individual food logs and noted behaviors and physical symptoms. We did this as a health/science project. At the end, each child had a list of foods that definitely didn’t work and a list of foods that definitely did work. Everyone had a list so no one was singled out as having a problem. Everyone was empowered to take responsibility for what they ate. We’ve made dietary adjustments and now we all feel better and enjoy each other more.

    As with anything, use what works for you and ignore the rest.

    Reply
  22. Rachelle Pittsley (Edit) Report

    More than just plain sugar, that nasty high fructose corn syrup causes what I can best describe as a chemically induced, rapid cycling, bipolar effect. All of my children are affected, but my 10-yr-old twins who have a neuro muscular disease are the worst. The will get very silly for a period of time, then become nasty and then seriously depressed. This year they were able to recognize this happening to themselves. I have made it very clear to their teachers that they are not allowed to have candy at any time and have supplied appropriate substitues for when someone has a birthday.

    I was very proud of my 14-yr-old sugar and caffeine addict. He volutarily refrained from candy and softdrinks during Halloween parties with his friends.

    On Halloween we let the kids dress in their costumes and go out to dinner during trick – or – treat time.

    Reply
  23. Linda (Edit) Report

    My almost 10 year old son has a dramatic reaction to sugar, especially when drinking soda like Sprite. He does like Valerie says because he goes from an angel child to a psycho child. It truly happens in a matter of minutes. It’s scary.

    Reply
  24. Elaine Trainor (Edit) Report

    I see changes in everyone’s behavior, myself included, when we consume candy after Halloween.

    Not wanting to be a wicked witch, I have set some Halloween guidelines:

    1. My kids are limited to collecting 1 bucket of candy (no pillowcases allowed).

    2. On Halloween night, kids can eat as much as they want, after I check for safety. Supervised toothbrushing is implemented for the short-term (they usually brush on their own now that they’re 8 and 12)

    3. Whatever is left in the candy bag, I then actively PUSH my kids to eat. Yes, you heard it right. I force them to eat candy each and every day. I send it in to school in their lunchboxes, encourage them to share it with their friends at school (hey, I’ve been fighting in vain with my school district about junky food at class parties, so if no one acknowledges it’s a problem, then it surely is okay for ME to send in candy with my kids lunches). They have it for afternoon snack, after dinner, whenever. I supervise brushing teeth each night. My kids have been told that ALL the candy not consumed by November 10th or so will be thrown away (which has never happened).

    That’s how we handle it in our house. Also, FYI, I am a mom who refuses to buy sugary cereals (or anything with high fructose corn syrup), and we rarely have candy/cookies in the house. I figure, let the kids have their fun. My older son, now 12, has also started to notice how crappy he feels when he consumes the junk.

    The kids get their Halloween experience, I’m not the evil nag, having to dole out each speck and crumb of candy into infinity, and the candy’s gone fairly quickly.

    Hey, it’s not for everyone, but it works for me.

    ELaine Trainor

    Reply
  25. Donna Edwards (Edit) Report

    I have not seen a difference in my 9 year old son from the food dyes and I tried the Feingold diet. His is sugar and caffeine not preservatives, food colors or food allergies. But you also have to realize that potatoes turn into sugar so you also have to watch the glycemic index to see what turns into sugar in your body, that can cause a blowout a couple of hours later also.

    Reply
  26. Denise (Edit) Report

    I whole heartedly agree that artificial flavors, dyes and preservatives can radically effect my son’s behavior. I happened to be a health seminar and saw a sign that listed what seemed like all of the ADD and ADHD behaviors. It had one difference though, it listed bed-wetting. My son was four at the time and was exhibiting all of the behaviors. It turned out the symptoms were being linked to the use of artificial flavors, colors and preservatives; it
    was advocating the Feingold diet to eliminate them. Once I started him on the diet, his behavior improved
    and the bed-wetting stopped. So “Yes” I too look to Halloween candy with fear and dread. Sometimes I wish he would just eat the candy all at once so I will have do deal with the after-effects for an intense two weeks, instead of four to six weeks!

    If you want more info about the Feingold diet, you can go to http://www.feingold.org

    Reply
  27. Valerie (Edit) Report

    I was able to narrow it down to 2 different food colors that affected one of my sons when he was a pre-schooler. (red 20 and blue 1) There was a measurable difference in behavior within 20 minutes of him consuming either. Actually found this out when I was trying to see if his behavior changed when we cut out sugar, then looked at the labels of a few sugarfree products when he reacted to them. He went from sweet angel child to psycho child in just a matter of minutes. And he didn’t like it, so he was perfectly happy to turn away and red or blue food. It was a riot to hear him, at 5 years old, decline a bowl of jello telling the other mom, “no thank you, blue food makes me go psycho.”

    I’m stunned that more studies haven’t been done on this, as it made life so much easier once we identified the problem.

    He grew out of the reaction to the food color by about age 8.

    Reply
  28. Muna (Edit) Report

    I would have to agree that sugar, additives and preservatives all contribute to negative behavior. Consumption of chips, foods containing high fructose corn syrup(which is in just about everything if you read the labels),and candy have negatively affected my 7 year olds son behavior. He is now labeled ADD. I am removing or at least trying to limit the amount he consumes to see if his behavior improves. I’ve began this personal study of mine about 2 months ago and have seen improvement. Even when asked, he will tell me sugar makes me happy and act crazy. What more proof do I need?

    Reply
  29. Diana (Edit) Report

    I am not a candy-phobe and had never worried about my kids eating candy (even at Halloween), but as I started reading more, paying more attention, and cutting back on the sugar, food dyes and presevative ingredients I saw a change. I definetly think it has a direct effect on them. When we have days that I just let it go I always live to regret it.

    Reply

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