Growing up, my mum regularly enjoyed using the phrase, “You’ve had too many E numbers”. No doubt we’ve all heard some variation of this. Perhaps we’ve even coined our own version since having children ourselves.
It seems natural to blame the sweets when children go a bit cray cray. I’ve even been known to blame a ‘sugar crash’ when my energy has taken an almighty blow. But how much truth is there to this age-old theory? I looked into the evidence surrounding a connection between food and hyperactivity.
Hyperactivity Vs. Food – the Myths
Many of us believe that children’s behaviour is often linked to their diet. So where has this idea come from? Allergist Benjamin Feingold presented research in 1973 proposing that we can cure hyperactivity by cutting certain items from our diet.
His research revealed a possible link between hyperactivity and artificial additives, namely food colourings and artificial flavourings. Another was salicylates (chemicals found in plants that are used in some painkillers). But have his findings stood the test of time?
Hyperactivity Vs. Food – the Facts
Research undertaken by Southampton University appears to support Feingold’s findings. It showed that consuming certain artificial food colours could impact a child’s behaviour. Thus, eliminating specific listed food colourings could improve behaviour, especially in children with signs of hyperactivity or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The study concludes that eliminating these colours could encourage positive behavioural changes, although it would not be a universal cure.
So it seems there is a clear link between certain artificial additives and behaviour. But what about sugar? The theory that excess sugar consumption causes hyperactivity seems to also have been born out of Feingold’s research. Many reports claim that the connection to sugar originates with him. However the idea that sugar is one of the substances that contributes to hyperactive behaviours is yet to be scientifically proven.
In 1995 a meta-analysis was undertaken on the subject of sugar and hyperactivity in children. The authors sought out the best studies already published, combined all of the data and reanalysed it. The Guardian states that the research used known sugar quantities and placebos. The children, their parents, and the researchers were blind to the conditions.
In the end, the study concluded that “sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children. The strong belief of parents may be due to expectancy and common association”. This information may well come as a surprise. Other studies, including one lead by the BBC with similar conditions have also led to the same conclusion.
How Does This Help Us as Parents?
How do we use this information in our own daily lives? While there may not be a link between sugar and hyperactivity, sugar is definitely linked to poor dental health, diabetes and obesity. Limiting its intake is undeniably beneficial to general health. There has recently been a test launched in California that can identify added sugars which may be helpful in reducing consumption of foods high in sugar.
In regards to artificial flavours and colourings, these can be often easy to miss. The FSA provides information on obtaining foods that are free from the six main colours. There are long lists of caterers, restaurants and retailers which have product ranges that exclude these artificial colourings.
The surest way to avoid artificial additives is to prepare your own healthy snacks and treats at home. That way you know exactly what your children are eating. Though we know this isn’t always easy in our busy lives!
If you’re worried, then keeping a food diary about food intake and subsequent moods or behaviour can be really useful. The NHS suggests doing this, particularly if you feel concerned that your child’s diet may be affecting their behaviour. A diary will help to spot any patterns of behaviour which may be linked to certain ingredients. These may include the above colours, however there are many other factors which could affect children’s behaviour, including genetics. It’s always advised that you seek medical advice before making any significant adjustments to your child’s diet.
Just remember that everyone is different, and what affects some people may not affect others. It can be a case of trial and error. If you stick to a healthy diet with lots of fruit, veg and whole grains, and keep sugary treats in moderation, you can’t go far too wrong.