Hyperactivity means an increase in movement, impulsive actions, being easily distracted, and shorter attention span. Some people believe that children are more likely to be hyperactive if they eat sugar, artificial sweeteners, or certain food colorings. Other experts disagree with this.
Some people claim that eating sugar (such as sucrose), aspartame, and artificial flavors and colors lead to hyperactivity and other behavior problems in children. They argue that children should follow a diet that limits these substances.
Activity levels in children vary with their age. A 2-year old is most often more active, and has a shorter attention span, than a 10-year old.
A child's attention level also will vary depending on his or her interest in an activity. Adults may view the child's level of activity differently depending on the situation. For example, an active child at the playground may be OK. However, a lot of activity late at night may be viewed as a problem.
In some cases, a special diet of foods without artificial flavors or colors works for a child, because the family and the child interact in a different way when the child eliminates these foods. These changes, not the diet itself, may improve the behavior and activity level.
Refined (processed) sugars may have some effect on children's activity. Refined sugars and carbohydrates enter the bloodstream quickly. Therefore, they cause rapid changes in blood sugar levels. This may make a child become more active.
Several studies have shown a link between artificial colorings and hyperactivity. On the other hand, other studies do not show any effect. This issue is yet to be decided.
There are many reasons to limit the sugar a child has other than the effect on activity level.
- A diet high in sugar is a major cause of tooth decay.
- High-sugar foods tend to have fewer vitamins and minerals. These foods may replace foods with more nutrition. High-sugar foods also have extra calories that can lead to obesity.
- Some people have allergies to dyes and flavors. If a child has a diagnosed allergy, talk to a dietitian.
- Add fiber to your child's diet to keep blood sugar levels more even. For breakfast, fiber is found in oatmeal, shredded wheat, berries, bananas, whole-grain pancakes. For lunch, fiber is found in whole-grain breads, peaches, grapes, and other fresh fruits.
- Provide "quiet time" so that children can learn to calm themselves at home.
- Talk to your health care provider if your child cannot sit still when other children of his or her age can, or cannot control impulses.
Diet - hyperactivity
Ditmar MF. Behavior and development. In: Polin RA, Ditmar MF, eds. Pediatric Secrets. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 2.
Langdon DR, Stanley CA, Sperling MA. Hypoglycemia in the toddler and child. In: Sperling MA, ed. Pediatric Endocrinology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 21.
Sawni A, Kemper KJ. Attention deficit disorder. In: Rakel D, ed. Integrative Medicine. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 7.
Review Date 5/17/2019
Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.