Diet & Nutrition

Why Sugar Is Kryptonite for ADHD Brains

Following an ADHD diet rich in protein and vitamins can help control symptoms of attention deficit. But only if you avoid sugar, artifical flavors, and common allergens as well.

Spoon filled with sugary cereal with bowl in background is a terrible choice for children with ADHD
Spoon filled with sugary cereal with bowl in background is a terrible choice for children with ADHD

Deficiencies in certain types of foods can worsen ADHD symptoms in children and adults. An ADHD diet that ensures you’re getting adequate levels of the right foods optimizes brain function.

Protein. Foods rich in protein — lean beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, soy, and low-fat dairy products — can have beneficial effects on ADHD symptoms. Protein-rich foods are used by the body to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals released by brain cells to communicate with each other. Protein can prevent surges in blood sugar, which increase hyperactivity.

“Because the body makes brain-awakening neurotransmitters when you eat protein, start your day with a breakfast that includes it,” says Laura Stevens, M.S., a nutritionist at Purdue University and author of 12 Effective Ways to Help Your ADD/ADHD Child. “Don’t stop there. Look for ways to slip in lean protein during the day, as well.”

Try: thinkThin protein bars, Larabars, Raw Revolution bars, or Berry Blendz fruit smoothies.


Supercharge Your Brain with ADHD-Friendly Vitamins and Minerals


Balanced Meals. Faye Berger Mitchell, a registered dietician from Bethesda, Maryland, has a nine-year-old daughter who received an ADHD diagnosis two years ago. While her daughter takes stimulants to control her ADHD symptoms, Mitchell concluded that a pill is not enough. She finds that when her daughter eats a well-balanced diet, including vegetables, complex carbohydrates, fruits, and plenty of protein, her behavior tends to be more consistently under control.

Ned Hallowell, M.D., founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health, in Sudbury, Massachusetts, and New York City, advises all of his patients with ADHD to think about their plates when preparing a meal. Half of the plate, he recommends, should be filled with fruits or vegetables, one-fourth with a protein, and one-fourth with carbohydrates.

Hallowell also advocates eating several servings of whole grains, which are rich in fiber, each day to prevent blood sugar levels from spiking and then plummeting.

“Many diets are deficient in key vitamins, minerals, and fats that may improve attention and alertness,” says Richard Brown, M.D., author of How to Use Herbs, Nutrients, and Yoga in Mental Health Care. He suggests that children and adults who have been diagnosed with ADHD be tested for nutritional deficiencies.

“Supplements and diet can correct nutrient shortfalls that exacerbate ADHD symptoms,” adds Brown.

Zinc, Iron, and Magnesium. Zinc regulates the neurotransmitter dopamine and may make methylphenidate more effective by improving the brain’s response to dopamine. Low levels of this mineral correlate with inattention. Iron is also necessary for making dopamine. One small study showed ferritin levels (a measure of iron stores) to be low in 84 percent of children with ADHD compared to 18 percent of the control group. Low iron levels correlate with cognitive deficits and severe ADHD. Like zinc, magnesium is used to make neurotransmitters involved in attention and concentration, and it has a calming effect on the brain.

All three minerals are found in lean meats, poultry, seafood, nuts, soy, and fortified cereals. While diet is the safest way to increase all three mineral levels, a multivitamin/multimineral with iron will ensure that you or your child gets the daily reference value (DRV) of these minerals.

B Vitamins. Studies suggest that giving children who have low levels of B vitamins a supplement improved some IQ scores (by 16 points) and reduced aggression and antisocial behavior. “Vitamin B-6 seems to increase the brain’s levels of dopamine, which improves alertness,” says Brown.


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Try: Bio-Strath, a Swiss formula, available in pill and liquid forms at vitacost.com, was used in many studies on vitamin B and ADHD. Drugstore chains also offer inexpensive, high-quality, store-brand B-vitamin formulations.

Multivitamin/Multimineral. If your child is a picky eater, or if he eats lots of take-out food, chips, and soda, he probably isn’t getting the daily recommended value of vitamins and minerals. A daily multivitamin/multimineral will ensure that he does, no matter how finicky he is.

Try: Hero Yummi Bears Multi-Vitamin + Minerals. They contain no artificial colors and flavors, which increase hyperactivity in some children with ADHD.

Picamilon. A combination of the B-vitamin niacin and gamma-aminobutryic acid (GABA), picamilon improves blood flow to the brain and has mild stimulative effects, improving alertness and attention. It can also reduce aggressive behavior. “Both adults and children derive benefits from this supplement,” says Brown.

Try: Picamilon can be purchased at Smart Nutrition and IAS.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Omega-3s are believed to be important in brain and nerve cell function. A new study, conducted at Göteborg University, in Sweden, concluded that daily doses of omega-3s — found in cold-water, fatty fish, such as sardines, tuna, and salmon — reduced ADHD symptoms by 50 percent. Dr. Sven Ostlund followed a group of ADHD children aged 8-18 who took fish oil daily. Within six months, there was a noticeable decrease in ADHD symptoms in 25 percent of the children.

Another study showed that omega-3s tend to break down more readily in the bodies of patients with ADHD than in those without the condition. “People with ADHD who have low blood levels of omega-3s will show the biggest improvement in mental focus and cognitive function,” says Brown. “Sometimes the change is dramatic.”

John Ratey, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, recommends that you choose a supplement that contains more EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) than DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

Try: OmegaBrite, Omega Rx, MorEPA, or Nordic Naturals pills; or Barlean’s Omega Swirl drink

“Herbs may improve blood flow to the brain, increasing alertness while reducing aggressive behavior,” Brown says. Talk with your doctor, or a psycho-pharmacologist, before starting an herb regimen.

Ginkgo and Ginseng. “These herbs are cognitive activators,” says Brown. They act like stimulants, without the side effects of ADHD medication. Typically, adults and children who take ginkgo and ginseng improve on ADHD rating scales, and are less impulsive and distractible. Asian ginseng may overstimulate younger children. If this happens, switch to American ginseng.

Try: Hsu’s Ginseng is a reliable mail-order source for American and Asian versions of the herb. According to Brown, Ginkoba and Ginkgold are the best brands of ginkgo.

Pycnogenol. An extract made from French maritime pine bark, pycnogenol was found to improve hyperactivity and sharpen attention, concentration, and visual-motor coordination in students after one month, based on standardized measures and teacher and parent ratings. The herb is also rich in polyphenols, antioxidants that protect brain cells from free radical damage. “The first double-blind study on the herb was published in 2006, confirming its benefit,” says Brown. “Larger randomized trials, though, are needed.”

Try: Purchase pycnogenol from Nature’s Best.

Rhodiola Rosea. Made from a plant of the same name that grows in the Arctic, this herb can improve alertness, attention, and accuracy. It can be too stimulating for young children, and is occasionally beneficial in children ages eight to 12. It is most useful, says Brown, for students in junior high, high school, and college, who have to complete long papers and spend hours reading.

Try: Rhodiola rosea is available from Ameriden International and GNC.

High-Sugar Foods and Snacks. Several studies suggest that some kids who have ADHD are “turned on” by copious amounts of sugar. One study concluded that the more sugar hyperactive children consumed, the more destructive and restless they became. A study conducted at Yale University indicates that high-sugar diets increase inattention in some kids.

Some common items to avoid include fruit “drinks” or “cocktails,” both of which are higher in sugar than 100 percent fruit juice. Read food labels carefully, looking for the following ingredients (code words for sugar): high-fructose corn sweetener, dehydrated cane juice; dextrin; dextrose; maltodextrin; sucrose; molasses; and malt syrup.

Artificial Dyes and Preservatives. Studies published in The Lancet, Pediatrics, and The Journal of Pediatrics suggest that some children with ADHD are adversely affected by food additives. A recent study indicates that artificial food coloring and flavors, as well as the preservative sodium benzoate, make some kids without ADHD hyperactive.

Avoid colorful cereals, like Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms. Cheerios are better, and lower in sugar. Substitute 100 percent fruit juice for soft drinks and fruit punches, most of which are artificially colored and flavored. If your child wants a treat, offer him Pepperidge Farm Chessmen cookies, which are free of dyes and low in sugar.

Foods That Cause Allergies. According to studies, gluten, wheat, corn, and soy cause some children to lose focus and become more hyperactive. Vincent Monastra, Ph.D., author of Parenting Children with ADHD, suggests that all children be screened for food allergies before being prescribed medication for ADHD. Talk with your doctor about testing for allergies.

6 comments

  1. This is generally good advice but do NOT supplement with IRON until blood ferritin levels have been measured. This can be DEADLY for anyone with hemochromatosis (iron overload) where iron builds up to dangerous levels and can shut down the pituitary as well as affect the heart and liver. Iron must be kept in BALANCE and clinically I’ve seen ADDers with HIGH and LOW iron so this is a case where correlation does not equal causation. B-Vitamins must be in a highly bio-available form if taken as a supplement, and any Omega 3 supplements must be high quality to avoid heavy metal contamination as well as tested for rancidity. For the latter, fresh wild caught fatty fish such as Salmon or Trout consumed 3 times a week is a critical foundation upon which to supplement with Omega 3s

  2. I fail to see in this article exactly WHY sugar needs to be avoided. Is there any scientific researce done specifically on people with ADHD available to back this up?
    Remember, sugar is a stimulant and used correctly, can be a natural and effective help in day to day situations.

    I have a hard time when people try to generally ban foods based on little or no evidence.

    Remember banning especially sugar effects the quality of life very strongly for all involved and I hesitate to do it to people whose quality of life is already so low to begin with. Why do you?

    1. Regarding your comment: Is there any scientific researce done specifically on people with ADHD available to back this up? I believe the author provided ample scientific research to make such a claim.

      1-Several studies suggest that some kids who have ADHD are “turned on” by copious amounts of sugar.

      2-One study concluded that the more sugar hyperactive children consumed, the more destructive and restless they became.

      3-A study conducted at Yale Universityindicates that high-sugar diets increase inattention in some kids.

      However, that’s actually not why I registered specifically to respond to your comment. Indeed, the exact reason is because of your comment insinuating that the quality of life for people living with ADHD is “already so low to begin with”. Do you have any scientific evidence to back up your gross generalization?

      I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 5. At the age of 36 I can tell you, beyond a shadow of doubt, that sugar negatively affects my attention, impulsivity, and anxiety levels. I won’t say that I never eat sugary foods, but I regulate my intake.

      I’m married with two beautiful children, I’m a homeowner, I have two masters degrees, a PhD, and I am highly respected in my field. All in all, I would say that my quality of life is extremely high.

      I take offense to your uneducated, insulting, and judgmental commentary. For anyone reading this article to gather information on how to best assist yourself or a family member who has recently been diagnosed with ADHD, please do not read this person’s post and be discouraged. ADHD is manageable and you can live a very happy life.

      1. Hi
        I’m sorry to hear that your interpretation of my comment has caused you offense. I did not mean to offend.

        Maybe I was taken by surprise by the generalized and offensive title of the Article that insinuated that sugar is “kryptonite” for ADHD brains, although in actuality, research is not conclusive. And when research does indicate that sugar is detrimental, it is only detrimental for some. Which means that maybe for some, it could also have good effects – like the results of the Yale study you mentioned seem to indicate.

        Banning sugar is very much a restriction and narrows the quality of life.

        And I admit that my choice of words in the original may be misleading and I’m sorry for that. A more precise formulation would be “Remember banning especially sugar effects the quality of life very strongly for all involved and I hesitate to do it to people whose quality of life may already be so low to begin with.”

        I’m very glad that the quality of your life is so high. It shows that it is possible to have if the condition met with acceptance in the environment and appropriate treatment.

        But please know that there is still much to be done until everyone with ADHD can have the good fortune to achieve the quality of life you have. Just look at the forum and you will see ample evidence in practically every new subject for my statement. I don’t believe you need a study for that. Just the diagnosis criteria “Severe: (Many symptoms are above required 6 are endorsed and/or symptoms are severe; impairment in social or school functioning is severe)” required to make the diagnosis is ample scientific evidence about the quality of life. If you are severely impaired in your functioning you most likely also do not have the quality of life that other neurotypicals have. It is the logical consequence of the diagnosis. If you have a very good quality of life at diagnosis you most likely will not be diagnosed as having ADHD. That a good quality of life can become possible is a result of hard work, an accepting social environment and good treatment. And that is a wonderful thing to be hoped for.

        I myself feel hurt at your very strong words about my commentary being uneducated. I stand by my opinion that the very general comments in the article are based on extremely weak evidence. To base an entire treatment philosophy on a few very conflicting studies is in my opinion not professional.

  3. This study appears to only have focused on children. Is it fair to assume adults should be taking the same approach or are their other minerals that should be considered? My other question is how long does the sugar stay in your system?

    I was once told by a Dr. that the only organ in your body that likes sugar is your tongue. All other organs and bodily processes attempt to discharge or process it as soon as possible. Clearly, it’s just not good for anyone.

    Thanks

    1. Sure, sugar gets processed quickly, because the body needs it. What does it turn into? Energy, true, which the body also needs to keep up the daily tasks like keeping warm and digesting food, but also freeing dopamine and endorphins. So think twice before you call it generally bad.

      Listen, I have to keep sugar down at a low level because of my weight. And I do restrict it greatly. But to ban it altogether and call it “kryptonite” is something that is very harsh. Kind of “black and white”, don’t you think? “All sugar is evil”

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