Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by restlessness, inability to sit still, inattention, and impulsivity.
It has long been speculated that sugar either causes ADHD or worsens ADHD symptoms associated with ADHD symptoms in some people. However, there is little scientific evidence to support this view.
This article will explore how sugar affects people with ADHD, how to reduce sugar intake, and when to see a healthcare provider.
The link between sugar and ADHD
Many parents and guardians of children with ADHD are accustomed to hearing well-intentioned but unsolicited advice to limit their children’s sugar in order to reduce their hyperactivity. But can sugar really cause or worsen ADHD symptoms? Science says it doesn’t.
There is no evidence that sugar causes ADHD. There is very limited evidence that sugar may be a factor in ADHD symptoms, both in children with ADHD and in children without ADHD. Recent research findings include:
- 2019 Birth Cohort Study Finds No Evidence Linking ADHD Incidence and Eating sucrose (table sugar, by glucose and fructose) for children aged 6 to 11.
- A 2020 systematic review (high-level summary of all available primary studies) and meta-analysis (compiling statistics from data from systematic reviews) of seven studies involving 25,945 people showed that there was a significant correlation between overall sugar and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. There is a positive correlation, and symptoms of ADHD. However, the researchers noted that other factors may have contributed to these results. More research is needed to control for these factors.
- A 2021 study suggests that excessive intake of fructose (fruit sugar) may activate a biological survival pathway that stimulates hyperactive foraging behavior (extreme motivation to seek and find more food to prevent food shortages and starvation) . This can lead to behavioral disorders such as ADHD and aggressive behavior. But more research is needed to confirm the results.
If evidence is lacking, why is the belief that sugar causes hyperactivity in children with ADHD so common? This may be because much of the so-called evidence comes from caregiver observations, which may be unreliable.
Research shows that parents and caregivers who expect to be hyperactive after consuming sugar are more likely to perceive their children to be more hyperactive after consuming sugar, compared to unbiased observers.
This doesn’t mean that parents and guardians are always wrong when they find out that their children seem more euphoric after consuming sugar — it’s likely not because of the sugar. In already exciting situations, such as at a birthday party or Halloween, children often get more candy than they are used to. Stimuli from the environment may be more likely to be the cause of ADHD than extra sugar.
Can I treat my or my child’s ADHD myself?
ADHD is a chronic condition that begins in childhood and usually continues into adulthood. Optimal management usually requires guidance and treatment from a healthcare provider. Treatment needs also change over time.
If you or your child has symptoms of ADHD, talk with a healthcare provider to discuss how best to proceed.
Sugar Intolerance or Sugar Allergy?
reduce sugar intake
Even though sugar is unlikely to significantly affect ADHD symptoms directly, healthy eating habits are important for people with ADHD and everyone. This includes eating sugar in moderation.
Blood sugar spikes, such as those caused by consuming sugary foods or ultra-processed grains and starches, and the consequent blood sugar dips can affect a person’s mood and ability to concentrate and cause fluctuations in energy levels with and without ADHD.
Some ways to limit sugar intake and effects include:
- Include protein sources in meals and snacks, especially if they contain sugar or refined carbohydrates.
- Save sweets for later in the day when attention is less of a concern.
- Eat regularly to minimize blood sugar spikes and dips and reduce exposure to sugary foods.
- Eat some fruit when you want something sweet. Fruit still contains sugar, but it’s packed with healthy nutrients and contains fiber that helps reduce blood sugar spikes.
- If you eat a lot of sugar, reduce your intake by gradually increasing your intake of healthier foods to replace the sweets you are reducing.
When to talk to your healthcare provider
See a healthcare provider if you or your child shows signs of ADHD. They can help with your diagnosis and work with you to develop a treatment plan.
If you have concerns about nutrition and eating habits, your healthcare provider can refer you to a qualified nutritionist.
ADHD is not caused by sugar, and there is not enough evidence to support sugar directly affecting ADHD or ADHD. Research on ADHD and sugar is conflicting and limited. Even so, blood sugar fluctuations can affect mood and concentration. A balanced diet, including protein and complex carbohydrates, and limiting excess sugar is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for everyone, including those with ADHD.
Sugar doesn’t cause ADHD, and eliminating it won’t cure it. There’s also little evidence that sugar makes ADHD worse.
So, should you eliminate sugar? Doing so is unlikely to have a significant impact on you or your child’s ADHD symptoms, but excess sugar is not healthy for anyone. If you feel sugar is affecting you or your child’s ADHD, it probably won’t hurt to limit excess sugar as long as their nutritional needs are met. Even if it doesn’t help ADHD symptoms, a healthy diet may show other positive effects.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can sugar make ADHD worse?
There isn’t enough evidence that sugar directly affects ADHD. Studies have released conflicting results, none of which are conclusive. Studies showing a correlation suggest that more research is needed to confirm their results.
Organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) do not recommend the use of special diets to treat ADHD.
How do sugar and food dyes affect kids with ADHD?
In most cases, studies question sugar as a major factor in ADHD symptoms.
Research on food dyes is conflicting. Most people don’t support food coloring as a cause of ADHD, and it’s not a problem for most people. Some research suggests that people with or without ADHD may be sensitive to certain food dyes, which may affect them in ways such as worsening ADHD symptoms.
It is not recommended that everyone with ADHD avoid food dyes, but it is possible to discuss with your healthcare provider whether an elimination diet can help.