ADHD Diet & Nutrition

The Sugar Wars: How Food Impacts ADHD Symptoms

Simple changes in nutrition — like cutting back on sugary snacks — could bring out the sweeter side in your child. It may even help her control challenging ADHD symptoms like impulsivity and inattention.

A boy with ADHD, staring at a tall pile of donuts with sugar
Boy with ADHD sits at table with stack of sugary donuts in front of him

Chances are, you’ve had the following chat with the doctor of your child with ADHD — probably just before the holidays…

“Every time Johnny has lots of sugar in his diet, his symptoms of ADHD worsen, and he becomes irritable and hyper. I dread this season because Johnny turns it into unhappy days for everyone.”

Your doctor leans back in his leather chair and says, “What your child eats has nothing to do with his behavior! There is no research that supports a link between sugar and ADHD.”

Think again.

How Does Sugar Impact ADHD?

While some studies have found no correlation between refined sugar and increased hyperactivity in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD), other studies on nutrition suggest that some kids with ADHD are “turned on” by copious amounts of sweet stuff.

A study1 conducted by the University of South Carolina concluded that the more sugar hyperactive children consumed, the more destructive and restless they became. A study2 conducted at Yale University indicates that high-sugar diets may increase inattention in some kids with ADHD.

[Free Guide: What to Eat (And Avoid) to Improve ADHD Symptoms]

So where does this leave you, in between birthday cupcakes, holiday treats, and summer ice cream? Don’t panic. The first thing to do is to determine whether sugar affects your child the way it affected children in the studies. Start by removing as much sugar, corn syrup, and other natural sweeteners as you can from his diet for 10 days — a difficult but doable task!

On the eleventh day, give him a sugar test, stirring a tablespoon of sugar into 100 percent pure fruit juice. Does he kick it up a gear or three in terms of hyperactivity? Does he have less ability to focus? If yes, you have your answer.

Healthy Holidays

It’s time to go on sugar alert. But how can you possibly cut back on sweets during the holidays? Here are some strategies:

Set a good example at Halloween by giving out sugar-free chewing gum — or inedible items, like fancy pencils or nickels or dimes. If candy is a must, then look for white peppermints sweetened with sorbitol.

[Cutting Back on Sugar? Amp Up These Vitamins and Minerals Instead!]

Manage the candy your child does bring home from trick or treating. You can make a deal beforehand about exactly how much Halloween candy he can consume each day. Or you can “buy” the candy from your child, so he can purchase something else he really wants.

Substitute nuts, a platter of fresh veggies, or colorful fruits with tasty dips for the chocolate-covered cherries and candy corn served at gatherings.

Instead of sugary cookies, try Pepperidge Farm Chessmen — one of the few commercial varieties on the market low in sugar and free of food dyes.

Serve chilled punch, made with 100 percent fruit juice, in holiday cups. Avoid fruit “drinks” or “cocktails,” both of which are higher in sugar. When serving juice, accompany it with sandwiches made of meats or poultry on whole-grain bread. The protein in the meat and the fiber in the whole grain will help maintain steady blood sugar levels.

Sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But if your child is less hyperactive and inattentive, everyone benefits!

Sugar by Any Other Name

The following ingredients are all code words for sugar:

  • corn sweetener
  • corn syrup
  • corn syrup solids
  • dehydrated cane juice
  • dextrin
  • dextrose
  • maltodextrin; malt syrup; maltose
  • molasses
  • rice syrup
  • saccharose
  • sorghum or sorghum syrup
  • sucrose

1 Prinz, Robert, et al. “Dietary Correlates of Hyperactive Behavior in Children.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, vol. 48, no. 6, 1980, pp. 760–769.
2 Jones, T W, et al. “Enhanced Adrenomedullary Response and Increased Susceptibility to Neuroglycopenia: Mechanisms Underlying the Adverse Effects of Sugar Ingestion in Healthy Children.” The Journal of Pediatrics, vol. 126, no. 2, 1995, pp. 171–177.

10 Comments & Reviews

  1. The diet kooks have been coming out of the woodwork ever since Fiengold or goldstein or whatever his name is espoused diet as the big cause in the 70s and his sugar and red and yellow dyes. Those two studies you quote out of many many recent studies may be the only ones that had those findings.
    Even the so called Halloween candy effect on Normies has been found to be a crock by actual classroom studies. RECENTLY.
    I put my child through hell food wise based on this crap . Hopefully parents today are a lot smarter than accepting advice from a couple of cherry picked studies.
    Bad enough that Drug companies get away with only reporting the studies that frame their meds positively, we dont need speculation contrary to the vast majority of peer reviewed research to fill your pages. Of course the flat earth society is still at it as are the Global Warming deniers. Perhaps this stuff belongs on their pages.

  2. What about those of us that can see an actual reaction in our child from food products like red dye #40 and corn syrup? I don’t think those things should be so easily dismissed, and removing those products, along with similar ingredients, only makes for an overall healthier diet. Rather than dismissing this as “crap” as you called it, it makes more sense to pay attention to what triggers our children on an individual level, while striving to make them as healthy as possible. Acting as if the food we put into our bodies has no effect on behavior or energy levels is reckless for our children, and just plain ridiculous no matter how you look at it. Hopefully parents are smart enough to really look into ingredients, how they effect our bodies, and evaluate their child’s individual reaction.

  3. I have had terrible reactions to artificial sweeteners and well as other synthetically processed sugary substances. Sucralose and high fructose corn syrup are practically poison in my system.

  4. 100% fruit juice?! These are loaded with “natural” sugar, i.e. fructose, which is no better for you than any other type of sugar (I noticed that you omitted fructose from your list of other names for sugar). Fruit juice is as sugary as full sugar soda, yet marketed as somehow “healthy”.

Leave a Reply