Sugar Sensitivity

Most moms nowadays try to restrict sugar in their kids’ diet because they are worried about weight problems and the epidemic of childhood obesity that only seems to be on the increase in this country. But even for kids who have a healthy weight, sugar can have a profoundly negative effect on children’s minds, bodies and behavior.  This is especially true for children who are sugar sensitive.

What is Sugar Sensitivity? 

More research is needed on this topic, but most moms can see for themselves that not all children have the same reaction to sugar as others.  And for those who are sugar sensitive and react more strongly to the ingestion of sweets, there might be some definite biological reasons for this. Sugar intolerance or sensitivity is a definite digestive condition that affects kids and adults alike – but kids who are most vulnerable to this problem are ones who have a family history. As a matter of fact, according to a study from the University of Maryland Medical Center, when both parents have sugar sensitivity, they have a 25% chance of having a child with this issue, too.

What causes this problem? In some kids, sugar sensitivity is due to the fact that they are born with small intestines which do not produce an enzyme called aldolase B. This enzyme is important because it helps to break down sugars: without it, sugars remain undigested and can cause a variety of problems. This can include poor feeding (in infants) as well as unstable blood sugar levels, irritability, and fussiness.

Does it Really Affect Behavior?

Dr. Sears notes that for kids who are sugar sensitive, there can be consequences for eating too much sugar in the diet, noting that “behavior, attention span and learning ability deteriorate in proportion to the amount of sugar they consume”.   And while adults and kids and both suffer from this problem, the Sears site reports that some research suggests that kids might be more sensitive to these problems, mostly due to the fact that their brains and nervous system are still developing rapids as part of their normal growth and maturation.  In one study, when comparing kids and adults who received a test dose of sugar, the adrenaline levels in kids remained higher for longer: adrenaline is known to cause bursts in energy levels and hyperactive behavior.

The Sears site also notes that many kids with ADHD also have problems with sugar sensitivity and that there are many reasons for this:

  • ADHD kids have less control over impulses and are more likely to overeat and to grab sugary foods for instant gratification – as well as for the energy they provide.
  • Blood sugar regulation can be different in ADHD kids: research has found that their blood sugar levels can go up higher than other children after a meal and also that their levels of cortisol can be more elevated.  These spikes in blood sugar and hormonal levels can affect their behaviors, including hyperactivity.

For these reasons, it is especially important that moms of kids with ADHD consider sugar restrictions in their kids’ diets.

What Can Be Done?

For kids who truly are sugar sensitive, Livestrong Magazine notes that though this condition cannot be cured, it can be managed.  Cutting out foods which contain fructose or sucrose from the diet is the best way to do this.  However, it is good to keep in mind that this can be a difficult feat at first: these forms of sugar are in a wide variety of foods, including sodas and sweetened beverages, table sugar, honey, fruits (and fruit products like juices or jellies), and highly processed foods which contain high fructose corn syrup. However, moms who have put their kids on this kind of dietary restriction have found that behaviors like hyperactivity and impulsiveness can improve.

In short, sugar is about more than just weight control or preventing problems with obesity – children’s behaviors can be affected, too, especially those already trying to learn to live with ADHD. And while a no-sugar diet can be difficult at first, avoiding the foods that contain fructose and sucrose is definitely not impossible – and many moms find that the benefits of this are well worth the effort that it takes.



Brian Wu, PhD, is a fourth-year med student at the University of California (LA). He has a strong interest in children’s health and wellness and is also the founder of Health Stories for Kids (, a site dedicated to stories and articles about and for children with a variety of health conditions.

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