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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.

Source: A boy with ADHD, staring at a tall pile of donuts with sugar Chances are, you’ve had the following chat with the doctor of your child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (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 ADHD, other studies on nutrition suggest that some kids with ADHD are “turned on” by copious amounts of sweet stuff.

A study [1] 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.

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.

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.

Author: Laura Stevens

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