That Sugar Rush Is All In Your Head

iStock.com/egal
iStock.com/egal

We've all heard of the "sugar rush." It's a vision that prompts parents and even teachers to snatch candy away from kids, fearing they'll soon be bouncing off the walls, wired and hyperactive. It’s a myth American culture has clung to for decades—and these days, it’s not just a kid thing. Adults are wary of sugar, too. Some of this fear is warranted—diabetes, the obesity epidemic—but the truth is, sugar doesn't cause hyperactivity. Its impact on the body isn’t an up-and-down thing. The science is clear: There is no "sugar rush.”

To find out how and why the myth started, we need to go back to well before the first World War—then pay a visit to the 1970s.

Our Complicated Relationship With Sugar

According to cultural historian Samira Kawash, America has had a long, complex, love-hate relationship with sugar. In Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, Kawash traces the turn from candy-as-treat to candy-as-food in the early 20th century. At that time, the dietary recommendations from scientists included a mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, with sugar as essential for energy.

Not everyone was on board: The temperance movement, for example, pushed the idea that sugar caused an intoxication similar to alcohol, making candy-eaters sluggish, loopy, and overstimulated. In 1907, the chief of the Philadelphia Bureau of Health estimated that the "appetite" for candy and alcohol were "one and the same," Kawash writes. On the flip side, other scientists suggested that sugar from candy could stave off cravings for alcohol—a suggestion that candymakers then used in their advertisements.

While the debate about sugar as an energy source raged in America, militaries around the world were also exploring sugar as energy for soldiers. In 1898, the Prussian war office became the first to commission a study on the sweet stuff—with promising results: "Sugar in small doses is well-adapted to help men to perform extraordinary muscular labor," early researchers wrote. German military experiments introduced candy and chocolate cakes as fortification for the troops, and the U.S. military added sugary foods to soldiers' diets soon after. When American soldiers returned from World War I, they craved sweets, which "propelled an enormous boom" of candy sales that has lasted to this day, Kawash wrote on her blog, The Candy Professor. American advertisers framed candy as a quick, easy source of energy for busy adults during their workday.

As artificial sweeteners moved into kitchens in the 1950s, candymakers struggled to make their products appeal to women who were watching their waistlines. One industry group, Sugar Information Inc., produced a tiny "Memo to Dieters" pamphlet in 1954 designed to fit inside chocolate boxes. "Sugar before meals raises your blood sugar level and reduces your appetite," it claimed. But by the 1970s, the sugar-positivity heyday had started to wane.

The Origins of the Sugar Rush Myth

The idea that sugar causes hyperactivity gained traction in the early 1970s, when more attention was being paid to how diet might affect behavior. One of the major figures studying the possible connection between diet and behavior was an allergist named Benjamin Feingold, who hypothesized that certain food additives, including dyes and artificial flavorings, might lead to hyperactivity. He formalized this into a popular—yet controversial—elimination diet program. Though certain sugary foods were banned from the program for containing dyes and flavorings, sugar itself was never formally prohibited. Still, thanks in part of the Feingold diet, sugar started to become the poster child for diet and hyperactivity.

It wasn't until the late 1980s that serious doubts about sugar's connection to hyperactivity began to be raised by scientists. As FDA historian Suzanne White Junod wrote in 2003 [PDF], the 1988 Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health concluded that "alleged links between sugar consumption and hyperactivity/attention deficit disorders in children had not been scientifically supported." Despite "mothers' mantra of no sweets before dinner," she noted, "more serious allegations of adverse pediatric consequences … have not withstood scientific scrutiny."

A 1994 paper found that aspartame—an artificial sweetener that had also been accused of inducing hyperactivity in children—had no effect on 15 children with ADHD, even though they had consumed 10 times more than the typical amount.

A year later, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a meta-analysis of the effect of sugar on children's behavior and cognition. It examined data from 23 studies that were conducted under controlled conditions: In every study, some children were given sugar, and others were given an artificial sweetener placebo like aspartame. Neither researchers nor children knew who received the real thing. The studies recruited neurotypical children, kids with ADHD, and a group who were "sensitive" to sugar, according to their parents.

The analysis found that "sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children." (The authors did note that “a small effect of sugar or effects on subsets of children cannot be ruled out.”)

"So far, all the well-controlled scientific studies examining the relationship between sugar and behavior in children have not been able to demonstrate it," Mark Wolraich, an emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center who has worked with children with ADHD for more than 30 years and the co-author of that 1995 paper, tells Mental Floss.

Yet the myth that consuming sugar causes hyperactivity hasn’t really gone away. One major reason is the placebo effect, which can have powerful results. The idea that you or your children might feel a "sugar rush" from too much candy isn't unlike the boost you hope to feel from an energy drink or a meal replacement shake or bar (which can contain several teaspoons of sugar). The same is true for parents who claim that their kids seem hyperactive at a party. Peer pressure and excitement seem to be to blame—not sugar.

"The strong belief of parents [in sugar's effects on children's behavior] may be due to expectancy and common association," Wolraich wrote in the JAMA paper.

It works the other way, too: Some parents say they've noticed a difference in their kids' behavior once they take out most sugars from their diets. This strategy, like the Feingold diet, continues to attract interest and followers because believing it works has an impact on whether it actually works or not.

Correlation, Causation, and Caffeine

Which isn't to say there are absolutely no links between sugar consumption and poor health outcomes. A 2006 paper found that drinking a lot of sugary soft drinks was associated with mental health issues, including hyperactivity, but the study's design relied on self-reported questionnaires that were filled out by more than 5000 10th-graders in Oslo, Norway. The authors also noted that caffeine is common in colas, which might have a confounding effect.

In another study, conducted by University of Vermont professor of economics Sara Solnick and Harvard health policy professor David Hemenway, the researchers investigated the so-called "Twinkie defense," in which sugar is said to contribute to an "altered state of mind." (The phrase Twinkie defense comes from the 1979 trial of Dan White for killing San Francisco city district supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. His lawyers argued that White had "diminished capacity and was unable to premeditate his crime," as evidenced in part by his sudden adoption of a junk-food diet in the months before the murders. White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter.)

In their survey of nearly 1900 Boston public high schoolers, Solnick and Hemenway found "a significant and strong association between soft drinks and violence." Adolescents who drank more than five cans of soft drinks per week—nearly 30 percent of the group—were significantly more likely to have carried a weapon.

But Solnick tells Mental Floss the study isn't evidence of a "sugar rush."

"Even if sugar did cause aggression—which we did not prove—we have no way of knowing whether the effect is immediate (and perhaps short-lived) as the phrase 'sugar rush' implies, or whether it’s a longer-term process," she says. Sugar could, for example, increase irritability, which might sometimes flare up into aggression—but not as an immediate reaction to consuming sugar.

Harvard researchers are looking into the long-term effects of sugar using data from Project Viva, a large observational study of pregnant women, mothers, and their children. A 2018 paper in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine studied more than 1200 mother-child pairs from Project Viva, assessing mothers' self-reported diets during pregnancy as well as their children's health during early childhood.

"Sugar consumption, especially from [sugar-sweetened beverages], during pregnancy and childhood, and maternal diet soda consumption may adversely impact child cognition,” the authors concluded, though they noted that other factors could explain the association.

“This study design can look at relationships, but it cannot determine cause and effect,” says Wolraich, who was not involved in the study. "It is equally possible that parents of children with lower cognition are likely to cause a greater consumption of sugar or diet drinks, or that there is a third factor that influences cognition and consumption.”

The Science of the Sugar Crash

Though the evidence against the sugar rush is strong, a "sugar crash" is real—but typically it only affects people with diabetes.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, low blood sugar—or hypoglycemia—is a serious medical condition. When a lot of sugar enters the bloodstream, it can spike the blood sugar level, causing fluctuation, instability, and eventually a crash—which is called reactive hypoglycemia. If a diabetic's blood sugar levels are too low, a number of symptoms—including shakiness, fatigue, weakness, and more—can follow. Severe hypoglycemia can lead to seizures and even coma.

For most of us, though, it's rare. Endocrinologist Dr. Natasa Janicic-Kahric told The Washington Post that "about 5 percent of Americans experience sugar crash."

You're more likely to experience it if you do a tough workout on an empty stomach. "If one exercises vigorously and doesn't have sufficient intake to supplement their use of calories, they can get lightheaded," Wolraich says. "But in most cases, the body is good at regulating a person's needs."

So what you're attributing to sugar—the highs and the lows—is probably all in your head.

Fact-Checking Pottermore's Claim That Witches and Wizards Used Spells to 'Vanish' Their Waste Before Modern Plumbing

Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved. Harry Potter Publishing Rights/J.K.R.
Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved. Harry Potter Publishing Rights/J.K.R.

By now, you may have heard the peculiar explanation of how witches and wizards in J.K. Rowling’s universe relieved themselves before modern-day plumbing. As Entertainment Weekly reports, a section of the Pottermore website pertaining to the Chamber of Secrets entrance (which, if you recall, was in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom) states that Hogwarts adopted plumbing in the 18th century. Before that, spells were cast to eliminate excrement—or perhaps blast it into another dimension.

“Hogwarts’ plumbing became more elaborate in the eighteenth century (this was a rare instance of wizards copying Muggles, because hitherto they simply relieved themselves wherever they stood, and vanished the evidence),” the site states in an essay by Rowling. This was initially revealed in 2015, but Pottermore's recent tweet on the subject has been causing a stink.

A lot of people aren’t satisfied with this unsavory explanation—"witches and wizards, some highly sophisticated beings who created complex magical governments and tamed the fiercest beasts, at one point just pooped themselves,” Entertainment laments—but it’s worth noting that the claim does pass a historical fact check of sorts.

According to Rowling, Hogwarts was founded in the year 990 C.E.—more than 600 years before Sir John Harington, the godson of Queen Elizabeth I and a distant relative of Game of Thrones star Kit Harington, invented the first flush toilet. Even though this technology existed in the 16th century, Harington only made two toilets: One for himself and one for his royal godmother. The first patented flush toilet didn’t arrive until 1775, thanks to a different design by watchmaker (and toilet inventor) Alexander Cummings. So the timing checks out.

Of course, people didn’t just pee themselves or pop a squat on the ground prior to working toilets, which is why so many people are baffled by Rowling’s explanation. Chamber pots and outhouses were used throughout much of human history, and members of the British ruling class had more luxurious arrangements. In the 16th century, King Henry VIII did his business atop a padded chair—covered in sheepskin, black velvet, and ribbons—with a chamber pot beneath it. However, male courtiers did sometimes do their business wherever they felt like it (palace stairwells were one popular location in France).

As for Hogwarts’ plumbing situation, it may sound like a gross and unnecessary detail, but it’s actually relevant to the story. According to a Pottermore essay penned by Rowling, the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets was nearly revealed when the school decided to build a bathroom on the site. However, a student and direct descendent of Slytherin named Corvinus Gaunt played a part in concealing its entrance—“even after newfangled plumbing had been placed on top of it.”

[h/t Entertainment Weekly]

Diagnosing the Home Alone Burglars' Injuries: A Professional Weighs In

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

By Lauren Hansen

Since its debut in 1990, Home Alone has become as much a part of the Christmas cinematic ritual as It's a Wonderful Life. But unlike that uplifting tale about the good of mankind, Home Alone tells a rather unsettling Christmas story of a precocious 8-year-old who, after accidentally being abandoned by his family, is forced to defend his home from two dimwitted burglars.

Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) turns his family's home into a veritable funhouse of torturous booby traps that the so-called Wet Bandits Marv (Daniel Stern) and Harry (Joe Pesci) hilariously stumble through, and the transformation of a suburban Chicago home into a relentless injury machine is nothing short of spectacular. But it does require quite a suspension of disbelief. Can a man really be hit square in the face with a steam iron and walk away unfazed? What kind of permanent physical damage would a blow torch to the head really do? To answer these questions and officially dissolve Home Alone's Hollywood magic, I spoke with my friend Dr. Ryan St. Clair of the Weill Cornell Medical College. Enjoy.

THE INJURY: BB GUN TO THE FOREHEAD

The Set-Up: Marv and Harry try to sneak into the McCallister home by sweet talking Kevin from the back door. Kevin, meanwhile, points his BB gun through the doggie door and directly at Harry's groin—and shoots. When Marv goes to investigate the source of Harry's pain, he is met by the same BB gun, which is fired at extremely close range to his forehead.

The Doctor's Diagnosis: "Classic air-powered projectile weapons typically have muzzle velocities of 350 feet per second or less. A BB fired at close range from such a weapon could break the skin, but will not penetrate the skull, and is unlikely to penetrate Harry's scrotum, especially through fabric."

THE INJURY: IRON TO THE FACE

The Set-Up: Thwarted by the BB gun at the back door, Marv runs around to the basement stairwell—which Kevin has deliberately iced. Once he has stumbled his way down into the dark basement, Marv grabs for what he thinks is the light bulb cord. It's actually a rope attached to a steam iron that is propped up on the laundry chute door. The heavy iron comes plummeting down and smacks Marv in the face.

The Doctor's Diagnosis: "Let's estimate the distance from the first floor to the basement at 15 feet, and assume the steam iron weighs 4 pounds. And note that the iron strikes Marv squarely in the mid-face. This is a serious impact, with enough force to fracture the bones surrounding the eyes. This is also known as a 'blowout fracture,' and can lead to serious disfigurement and debilitating double vision if not repaired properly."

THE INJURY: HANDLING A BURNING-HOT DOORKNOB

The Set-Up: While Marv is getting an iron to the face, Harry tries to enter the home through the front door. The first attempt doesn't go well, as the stocky burglar slips on the icy steps and falls to the ground, landing with a thud on his back. Easing up a second time with the help of the railing, Harry makes it to the front door, reaches for the doorknob—which we see is literally burning red—and grasps the searing handle, the pain of which forces him once again down the icy steps.

The Doctor's Diagnosis: "If this doorknob is glowing visibly red in the dark, it has been heated to about 751 degrees Fahrenheit, and Harry gives it a nice, strong, one- to two-second grip. By comparison, one second of contact with 155 degree water is enough to cause third degree burns. The temperature of that doorknob is not quite hot enough to cause Harry's hand to burst into flames, but it is not that far off ... Assuming Harry doesn't lose the hand completely, he will almost certainly have other serious complications, including a high risk for infection and 'contracture' in which resulting scar tissue seriously limits the flexibility and movement of the hand, rendering it less than 100 percent useful. Kevin has moved from 'defending his house' into sheer malice, in my opinion."

THE INJURY: A BLOWTORCH TO THE SCALP

The Set-Up: Unable to get through the front door, Harry returns to the back. He kicks his foot through the doggy door to disarm a potential BB gun threat, delicately taps at the doorknob to test its temperature, and, finding it cool, opens the back door—only to unknowingly arm a blowtorch that fires at the top of his head.

The Doctor's Diagnosis: "Harry has an interesting reaction to having a lit blowtorch aimed directly at his scalp. Rather than remove himself from danger, he keeps the top of his skull directly in the line of fire for about seven seconds. What was likely a simple second-degree skin burn is now a full thickness burn likely to cause necrosis of the calavarium (skull bone)." That means the skin and bone tissue on Harry's skull will be so damaged and rotted that his skull bone is essentially dying and will likely require a transplant.

THE INJURY: WALKING BAREFOOT ON CHRISTMAS TREE ORNAMENTS

The Set-Up: After surviving the iron to the face, getting his shoes and socks peeled off by tar, and stepping onto a 3-inch nail, Marv abandons the basement entrance and enters the home through a conveniently opened window. Without looking down, however, and still barefoot, Marv jumps in, putting his full weight on a dozen pointy ornaments littered on the wood floor.

The Doctor's Diagnosis: "Walking on ornaments seems pretty insignificant compared to everything else we've seen so far. If I was Marv, I'd be more concerned about my facial fractures."

THE INJURY: PAINT CAN TO THE FACE

The Set-Up: Although severely injured, both the burglars are finally inside the house, and have forgone their looting plan for one of revenge. Hearing the taunts of Kevin's pre-pubescent voice, they scamper into the foyer only to slip dramatically on scores of Micro Machines, landing, once again, on their backs. Kevin cruelly mocks them from the top step: "You guys give up yet? Or are you thirsty for more?" Marv and Harry scramble up the staircase, where they are met by a speeding paint can attached to a rope. Harry manages to duck and evade the first hit, but Marv gets a paint can square in the face. Harry continues up the stairs but is hit by a second paint can. Both burglars end up back on the ground floor.

The Doctor's Diagnosis: "Assuming the paint can is full (roughly 10 pounds) and the rope is 10 feet long, Marv and Harry each take a roughly 2 kilo-newton hit to the face. That is easily enough to fracture multiple facial bones, and is probably going to knock you out cold. Also, I wouldn't expect either of the Wet Bandits to walk away from this with all of their teeth."

THE INJURY: SHOVEL TO THE BACK OF THE HEAD

The Set-Up: Kevin eventually lures the Wet Bandits through his house of injurious horrors, across the street, and into a neighbor's house. But Marv and Harry have clued into the fact that following the little tyke has provided them nothing but pain. They enter the neighbor's house their own way and meet little Kevin at the top of the basement steps. They hang him by his sweater from a hook on the back of a door and outline all the ways in which they will pay him back for the pain he caused, beginning with biting "every one of these little fingers, one at a time." Just before Harry can take the first bite, Kevin's elderly neighbor saves the day, coming up behind the burglars and hitting each one over head with his shovel, knocking them out cold.

The Doctor's Diagnosis: "Seriously? At this point, Marv and Harry have both suffered potentially crippling hand and foot injuries. Harry has proved to be nearly impervious to burns, and both managed to retain consciousness after taking a flying paint can straight to the face. Suddenly, a frail elderly man appears and weakly slaps them in turn with a flimsy aluminum Home Depot snow shovel. And, somehow, this is too much for them, and they collapse. This movie was way more believable when I was 8."

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