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Opinion: The ‘sugar high’ debunked

This Halloween, the biggest fright for parents may be the candy their children come home with. Are the sugar myths true — or just another Halloween tall tale?

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Alex Cochran, Deseret News

Ghosts and ghouls and goblins and — gummy bears?

For children, green-lit haunted houses, lurching zombies and cackling witches are the spookiest part of Halloween. For parents? It’s often the overflowing buckets of candy their children come home with. Why would the thing their children are so excited about inspire dread in the stomaches of parents? We can trace the tale back to the haunting myth of the sugar high.

Debunking the ‘sugar high’

According to The New York Times, the idea of a sugar high first appeared in medical literature in 1922, but it didn’t capture the general public’s fear until the mid 1970s when a book written by Dr. Ben Feingold called “Why Your Child is Hyperactive” hit the shelves. Worried about children with ADHD, many parents excitedly embraced the sugar-free diet as a cure for hyperactivity.

But in the early ’90s, researchers published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine detailing a study they conducted on a group of children marked by their parents as “sensitive to sugar.” They gave one group of children a diet rich in sucrose and another group a diet with a placebo sweetener. At the end of the study, the researchers concluded that the children who consumed the high sugar diet were not behaviorally or cognitively affected by the sugar. Many studies have followed and reached the same conclusion: there have been no negative behavioral effects linked to sugar consumption.

So if the myth was debunked almost 30 years ago, why do so many of us still believe it?

A scientific understanding of how sugar affects us

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate, and our bodies can break it down fairly quickly for energy, leading to an energy spike in our blood glucose levels — but not a behavioral spike. After we have consumed the energy, according to New York Times writer Virginia Sole-Smith in an interview with family physician and childhood feeding specialist Dr. Katja Rowell, we may feel an energy dip as our blood glucose levels fall back down. Sole-Smith in her article hypothesizes that this dip in energy may make some children feel a bit grumpy or tired, but she suggests children eat sugar with a fat or protein, which take longer for the body to break down.

Some researchers have also squabbled over the idea of a “sugar addiction” that could make people wild. In an article published by Inverse, David Benton, a professor of human and health science, says this idea might be less about addiction and more about restriction. Citing a 2008 study performed on rats, Benton points out that the rats’ supposed “sugar addiction” response was likely tied to the fact that they were not given food for 12 hours a day.

How to navigate the Halloween candy in your household

Allowing kids to enjoy their candy will help them avoid developing a scarcity mindset around sugar. When we tell kids that they can’t eat sugar or we severely restrict their intake, the scarcity mindset makes them fixate on sugar. Instead of focusing on how many pieces of Halloween candy a child consumes in a day, we should encourage children to eat a variety of foods, including sugars, fats and proteins.

According to Y Magazine’s interview with Corinne Hannan, a clinical psychologist at BYU, labeling foods negatively can damage a child’s relationship with their body and food. So instead of calling their candy bad, junk or cheat food, we should use neutral language to avoid sending the guilt-ridden message that if you consume “bad” candy, you are also “bad.”

Following this same line of thinking, children fall prey to the Pygmalion effect when parents tell them that sugar will make them crazy; the expectation itself, not the sugar, causes the child to act crazy.

Now that we’ve pulled the mask off and revealed that sugar isn’t the scary monster we thought it was, let’s not teach children to inherit the fears we’ve carried about sugar. We should all enjoy the spooky season without being spooked by our candy.