Don’t Be Fooled: Soda Linked To Bad Behavior In Kids

By Karen Weintraub
Guest Contributor

Back when I was on staff at The Boston Globe, I edited a story that said sugar didn’t make kids hyper. I didn’t believe it then, and a new study confirms my doubts.

Interviews with mothers of 3,000 five-year-olds from urban areas found – stunningly – that 43% of the children drank at least one soda a day, and 4% downed four or more.

out of ideas/flickr

out of ideas/flickr

And surprise, surprise, the children who drank the most sodas also behaved the worst, according to their mothers’ reports. Soda drinkers were more aggressive than those who abstained, and more likely to have attention problems, according to researchers David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health, Sara Solnick of the University of Vermont, and Shakira Suglia of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

The authors previously showed that adolescents were more aggressive toward others and more likely to hurt themselves the more soda they drank. The new study found pretty much the same among kindergartners:

“Those who drank soft drinks more frequently had higher scores for aggression and were more likely to destroy other people’s belongings, to get into fights and to physically attack people. Children who drank high levels of soda were more likely to exhibit withdrawn behavior and attention problems. These effects were present even after accounting for an array of socio-demographic factors and psychosocial stressors.”

It’s still unclear why or how sugar affects behavior. Studies have been contradictory, hence that long-ago story that rankled me.

“Caffeine may explain or contribute to our results,” the scientists wrote. Another possible trigger, they said, might be the food coloring in the soda (which has been found to contribute to ADHD behaviors), or perhaps low blood sugar caused both sugar cravings and aggressive behavior.

One other interesting fact: children who drank a lot of fruit juice were less aggressive, while those who ate a lot of candy showed more aggressive behaviors.

There were a few limitations to this study, as with all research. The data came from mothers, who might not have remembered their child’s exact soda consumption, or behavior. The study says nothing about cause-and-effect, just that the children who reportedly drank more soda also had more behavior problems. And the researchers didn’t look at a true cross-section of American children; kids with more social or financial advantages might not see as big an impact from soda drinking.

But the take-home message is clear: Drink water, not soda. And if your kid is acting out, try cutting back on sweets.

Karen Weintraub, a Cambridge-base health/science journalist, is a frequent contributor to CommonHealth. Follow her on Twitter @kweintraub.

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  • Ilana

    This seems like an incredibly flawed study- all self-report, no controlling for parenting (at least you didn’t mention any in your synopsis) and, as you mention, this is all correlation, not causation. I can easily think of several other underlying factors that could be causing this correlation. As a child psychologist and parent of young children, I agree that young children drinking sugary soft drinks every day is a bad idea, but to me the only reasonable conclusion here is that a better study is needed.

    • MaureenABA

      Exactly
      right that this study is egregiously incomplete. Even the study’s authors admit
      its shortcomings, saying this research ‘is not able to identify the
      nature of the association between soft drinks and problem behaviors.’ With
      regard to the age group featured in this study, it’s important to note that our
      member companies do not promote or market the consumption of soft drinks to
      this audience. – Maureen at American Beverage Association