How Does Sugar Affect Kids' Performance in School?

By Melody Causewell
Academics may improve with reduced sugar intake.
Academics may improve with reduced sugar intake.

While the link between attention deficit issues and sugar may not be as direct as was once assumed, sugar can alter how children perform in school. Sugar may affect children's school performance by triggering obesity, depressive symptoms and replacing valuable nutrition needed for optimum academics. Parents should take this into consideration when choosing meals and snacks for their children.

Attention Deficit Disorders

While sugar often gets a bad rap in this area, 2011 studies from the Korean Nutritional Society and the Korean Society of Community Nutrition's academic journal "Nutrition Research and Practice" show no link between sugar ingestion and hyperactive behaviors or attention deficit conditions. However, researchers Yujeong Kim and Hyeja Chang did find increases in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder type symptoms with low vitamin C levels and low consumption of fruit, both of which may occur when children choose sugary snacks instead of healthy alternatives. While sugar may not directly cause hyperactivity, the research suggests an indirect link when things like cookies are chosen instead of oranges for snacks and mealtimes.

Obesity and Academics

Higher consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and sugary snacks are related to childhood obesity. This obesity epidemic may not only be affecting performance in areas like gym class or marching band. According to Harvard-based researchers Howard Taras and William Potts-Datema, in a 2005 study published in the "Journal of School Health," obesity is also related to lower levels of academic performance. While more research in this area needs to be completed, lowered self esteem may play a role in this connection.

Sugar, Depression and School Performance

In some children, difficulty processing sugar may trigger depressive symptoms, according to 2005 research conducted in Barcelona. Published in the "Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition," this study found that the inability to properly absorb carbohydrates, including sugar, may cause depression in children and adolescents. Depressive symptoms including fatigue, sadness and hopelessness can make school difficult. Depression can detract from school performance in such marked ways that those reporting difficulties in school should be screened for depression.

Sugar and Less Nutritive Eating

The biggest concern may be what those sugary foods are replacing, instead of the sugar itself. Sugary foods devoid of nutritional value may be replacing far healthier alternatives, leading to altered academic performance. Research from the Department of Community Health in Halifax Canada, published in the "Journal of School Health" in 2008, indicates that children with less nutritive eating habits are more likely to have poor academic performance. Speculatively, this may be due to depressive responses, exhaustion or inattention issues related to lack of proper nutrition. While further research must be conducted to examine the direct relationships between food and school function, the authors noted that in 5,200 fifth-grade students, the worse the dietary quality -- such as high levels of sugary foods -- the worse children did on academic measurements even after controlling for socioeconomic factors and gender.

About the Author

Melody Causewell has been a writer in the mental health field since 2001. She written training manuals and clinical programs for mental health organizations. She has published feature articles "Leaven" magazine and has been published in "Natural Awakenings." She has a degree in psychology, a Masters degree in social work and is a La Leche League leader.