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By Tracy Anne Bell M.Ed.

The benefits of sugar on learning

The average American consumes over 66 pounds of added sugar a year.[1] Many articles discuss how sugar is detrimental to the physical body, but discovering how sugar affects mentality and behavior is a little harder to determine. Numerous scientific studies were conducted on children and college students to discover how sugar interacts with the brain. Surprisingly, sugar has actual benefits in cognitive and behavioral performance. Since processed sugars are part of most modern diets and are linked to health issues such as obesity, some parents and teachers are quick to blame sugar for many of the issues that students have in today's classrooms. Looking at several case studies shows that this may not be the truth.[2]

Traditional myths

Many parents and teachers believe that sugar intake leads to hyperactivity, unacceptable behaviors, lack of self-control and poor cognitive performance. In several case studies, these assumptions were proven false. Sugar is not linked to the following:

-Hyperactivity and ADHD [3]

-Delinquent behavior [4]

-Aggression [5]

-Reduced cognitive performance—-¹º

If so many studies prove that sugar helps learning and behavior, then why do the myths still exist?

Self-fulfilling prophecy

One way these myths may be affecting parent and teacher observations is the idea of self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-fulfilling prophecy happens when a person links a cause to an effect to prove a personal prediction as true. Since the person feels justified with his conclusion, he behaves in a way that produces the expect result.

An example of this would be when a parent or teacher knows that a student has ingested sugar. They conclude that the child's negative behaviors are the result of sugar and then respond accordingly. This triggers the judged child to react. The child's reaction is thought to come from one cause (the sugar) instead of the real cause (the adult's attitude). Adults' beliefs that sugar causes negative behaviors influences their actions toward the child. When the child reacts negatively to the adult, it creates the cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy.

By blaming sugar, parents and teachers are not focused on finding the real culprits behind what is causing the negative behaviors. This is an important missed opportunity. Useful treatments may be overlooked because the adult believes that sugar is the cause.

Benefits of sugar

Throughout a number of studies, when sugar was provided before or during an activity, children performed better:

-Cognitive functioning actually improved[6]

-Memory performance was enhanced[7]

-Focus was easier to maintain[8]

-Sports abilities increased[9]

-Self-control was strengthened, leading to less aggression[10]

Parents and teachers need to be aware of sugar's beneficial qualities and use this information wisely. Some ideas are giving hard candy before standardized tests, using small amounts of sugar to motivate off-task children, keeping athletes hydrated using sports drinks that contain sugar and using them in combination with water, and timing sugary snacks to coincide with children's natural energy lulls when bad behaviors are most likely to occur. By strategically timing and controlling the amount of sugar given, parents and teachers have one more tool they can use to make education an enjoyable experience.

[1] Statistic from Sugar Science

[2] Flora and Polenick reported on several studies in their paper "Effects of Sugar Consumption on Human Behavior and Performance"

[3] A double-blind study conducted by Wolraich et al

[4] A double-blind study conducted by Bachorowski et al found at

[5] A double-blind placebo controlled cross-over trial by Benton and Stevens

[6] A placebo-controlled, double-blind, balanced, crossover study by Scholey, Harper and Kennedy in 2001

[7] Two experiments by Mahoney, Taylor and Kanarek in 2007

[8] Supported in studies by both Bachorowski et al 1990 and Benton and Stevens 2008

[9] Confirmed in a study conducted by Dougherty, Baker, Chow, and Kenney in 2006

[10] Nine studies conducted by Gailliot et al in 2007

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