ADHD Foods to Avoid

You may be asking yourself, “What foods should I cut out for ADHD?” This will help get you started in the right direction and know what to avoid in your ADHD’ers diet.

I have known for a long time that sugar is one of the foods to limit for a hyperactive child, but what I have found out over the past few years has put sweet foods on my list of ADHD foods to avoid for many reasons – and there is more to avoid than sugar!

It’s also about the toxic sweeteners masquerading as sugar and the dyes that go along with them, that has made me certain about what foods to avoid for ADHD.

Caveat: I am not a doctor, nor a nutritionist. I share this for informational purposes, so you can do a deeper dive into what you are eating and feeding your kids. 

AND, this is not about perfection. This is about arming yourself with information and making better choices over time. It is nearly impossible to avoid these foods 100% of the time. Aim for the 80/20 rule and try to keep these trigger foods making up only 20% of your overall diet. 

***Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. See our policy here.***

Why do ADHD kids love sugar?

ADHD kids love sweet and carb loaded foods because they raise dopamine levels, a chemical that ADHD kids usually are deficient in.

So what, isn’t that a good thing?  


Along with that temporary rise in dopamine comes a host of negatives side effects when you mix sugar and the ADHD diet.

The Quick Back Story about my ADHD Kiddos

I had a reason to research how food affects ADHD – my oldest son.  He was crazy about sugary foods and granola bars and bread, really any processed carb he could get his hands on. 

He seems to crave it. All. The. Time. 

It could make him extremely emotional, angry, and combative.

In fact, when I started to suspect my oldest had ADHD , food was one of the first things we changed.  I saw a change in behavior almost immediately.  We now do our best to follow an ADHD Diet , get as much protein as we can and try to be super duper low on sugar. 

While I was learning about sugar and all the reasons to avoid sugar – many other foods cropped up as foods ADHD kids should avoid.

Related: My ADHD Kids eat healthier after taking this cooking class

So, what foods should you avoid for ADHD?

1. Limit Sugar 

“Sugar” and ADHD might be worse than you think. These facts, when seen together, really paint a horrible picture for sugar.

Wait, there’s more bad news about sugar and ADHD:

Sugar does damage to the liver and cause it to build up fatty tissue, leading to liver disease. Also, when you are eating sugary foods, you are less likely to be getting the nutrients your brain needs to function, increasing your ADHD symptoms.

Sugar can also wreck havoc on our dopamine levels, as our brains become used to high levels of sugar. ADHD kids (and adults) have lower levels of dopamine, and so sugar can be especially addictive for them. In fact, dopamine receptors can be altered in certain areas of the brain from consuming too much sugar over a long period of time.

The effect sugar has on dopamine and dopamine receptors makes it addictive and is why it is often so difficult to eliminate sugar from the diet.

Related: How to start an ADHD Diet for kids

adhd and sugar

What is the worst form of sugar?

Most of the sweetener we consume, as Americans, is High Fructose Corn Syrup – not pure cane sugar. Startlingly, the average American consumes about 100 pounds of HFCS annually – that’s 12,000 teaspoons. 

Just imagine what it’s doing to the population.

Worst Offender = High Fructose Corn Syrup

I’ve always known it was bad, but the research is mounting daily confirming that we should all stay away from this stuff.

Aside from shutting down the liver, causing obesity, type 2 diabetes and inflaming your body, it impairs the brain’s normal functions. 

If that’s not enough to get you reading every label in your home, according to some sources, one third of all HFCS contains dangerous amounts of mercury. Mercury builds up in the brain overtime with disastrous effects.

High Fructose Corn Syrup is not Sugar

High Fructose Corn Syrup and Sugar are not the same thing.

However, many manufacturers know that people are avoiding foods with High Fructose Corn Syrup on the label and so they are calling HFCS by another name.

Check labels and avoid foods that contain:

    Maize syrup

    Glucose syrup

    Glucose/fructose syrup

    Tapioca syrup

    Dahlia syrup

    Fruit fructose

    Crystalline fructose

Even foods that have “No High Fructose Corn Syrup” on their labels will have one or more of the above ingredients!

Don’t be deceived by the new names- it’s the same thing!! 

How much sugar is too much?

 As Americans, on average, we consume about half a pound of sugar a day. In this article, Katie Wells  tackles the question of why even eating sugar in moderation is just not the answer. Sugar is not a food group.

Did you know that the American Medical Association says that kids should eat less than 25 grams of sugar a day.  

Yes, 25 grams of processed sugar a day is the allowance.

This was a BIG realization for me when I learned this. 

Just look on any label and see how fast this adds up. A bowl of cereal and a glass of juice will catapult you over 25 grams-and that is just breakfast!

Our family is no way near the 1/2 pound a day norm, but we often exceed  25 grams of processed sugar per day recommendation for kids.

Remember we are talking about processed sugar…so that includes juices and dried fruit- as well as the obvious candy, frozen pizza, tomato sauce, cakes, cereals, granola bars, ketchup, salad dressings, barbecue chips, and cookies.

Fructose from whole fruits and vegetables is not counted in that limit, as whole foods contain fiber, enzymes, and vitamins and minerals that effect how the body processes the sugar.

What forms of sugar are “okay”?

Fresh and frozen fruit are the best, followed by maple syrup and raw honey, which contain antioxidants and gut beneficial ingredients  Stevia is a low calorie, plant based sweetener that can be okay in small amounts.  

Cane sugar is far better than HFCS or any artificial sweetener, but is highly caloric and should be eaten in very small amounts. 

The best solution is to cut back – maybe way, way back – on sweet foods in general. 

Take a look at what your kids eat in any given day and see how close you are to 25 grams a day. It is not hard at all to come in at double that – even while eating a seemingly, healthy diet

Related: The Best Breakfasts for ADHD

adhd and sugar

2. Also, stay away from artificial dyes.

Unfortunately, there is more to worry about in these sugary foods than sugar. Artificial food dyes are used to make candy look fun and inviting and exciting! Yet, they can be super harmful, too.

For instance, if your ADHD Kiddo experiences hyperactivity after eating a food, it may be from Red Dye 40, an artificial coloring found in even brown, green, and white foods. Blue 1, it seems, crosses the blood brain barrier, entering the bloodstream and possibly the brain. 

This doctor ,and mom of an ADHD kid who avoids food dyes, did some extensive research on food dyes. While she had trouble finding conclusive evidence, she wholeheartedly keeps her kids away from artificial food dyes when she can. 

The good news is that as concerned parents and physicians keep noticing a link between food dyes and adhd symptoms, more and more studies are cropping up listing the possible harm of food dyes. 

The FDA requires companies to list artificial food dyes on their labels, so avoiding them is easy. Look for dyes with numbers, like Red 40, Yellow 5, and Blue 1.

3. ADHD’ers should avoid preservatives in their food.

 The Feingold Diet for ADHD eliminates three main artificial preservatives – butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and tert-Butrylhdryquinone (TBHQ).

These preservatives are found in foods that need to last a long time – snack foods, gum, butter, meats, baked goods, to name a few. Avoiding processed foods is the best thing to do to avoid preservatives. 

The Feingold Association has a list of approved foods you can find HERE.

4. Avoid typical allergens like gluten, dairy, soy, and corn.

Foods that are common allergens, like gluten and dairy, can cause inflammation in the body and have an adverse effect on executive function skills. ADHD’ers already struggle with executive function skills like short term memory and gluten may compound it. 

There are some interesting links to ADHD and allergies. Some researchers think that 70 to 80% of ADDers have a gluten insensitivity .Both food allergies and ADHD have many things in common like lowered neurotransmitters and the two are often co-morbid. 

So, it makes total sense that cutting out allergens very well might help the symptoms of ADHD.

Ideas to lower HFCS for an ADHD Diet

(An Update and tips for a teenager are below! Keep Reading!)

Here’s how we are working to keep sweet treats way down for my kids as we follow an ADHD Diet:

  • We read labels and avoid anything that has High Fructose Corn Syrup – or one if it’s new forms.
  • We say,”No, thank you.” to all treats we are offered at the bank, the hair salon, the grocery store, etc. 
  • We drink water, carbonated water, and unsweetened almond milk-period at home.
  • We limit “desserts” to two days a week. 
  • We limit processed foods to one packaged item per day, in their lunch.  Their choices may include organic sweet potato chips, Munk Pack Cookies(or other organic, lower in sugar bars) or Mary’s Gone Crackers.
  • I make “treats” as often as possible, like cowboy cookies, or walnut date bars using dates, almond or coconut flour and as little sweetener as possible. (These cookbooks are my favorite for finding healthy treats.)
  • We read labels. I make my boys look for the sugar content in anything that has a label.  This is part of the teaching process. 
  • I talk about how food makes us feel and we try to notice how we feel after eating not so healthy choices.
  • We try to get a dopamine rush from exercise. Make exercise a daily habit to help stay away from sugar.

Seems like we are already doing really well, doesn’t it? I know my kids probably eat less sugar than the average kid.

 BUT, we are far from perfect and keep making changes to do better.

Related: The Best Snacks for ADHD

When you know better, you do better

It’s up to you to dig and find information – the food companies do not want you to know this stuff – because you’ll stop buying their food. 

In the seventies, scientists came up with the perfect mix of sugar, salt, and fat to maximize your brain’s pleasure center. The food industry has been using this formula for years and is literally creating food that “hooks your brain”. 

As a parent to two ADHD kiddos myself, I don’t have to explain to you that this journey is one of learning and arming ourselves with the correct information.  When you have all this great information about all the havoc that sugary foods can wreak, it is so much easier to make changes. 

Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Make changes slowly. Do what seems the easiest first. 

Wait, how does this work with teenagers????

*******Update: I now have a teenager!******************

My 15 year old, who struggles to fit in socially as it is,  begs me to have a lunch that looks like everyone else’s.

I feel his pain and I continue to make it an opportunity to talk to him.  

We have conversations with my son where I talk about the benefits of our adhd diet and the negative effects of too much sugar.  He barely listens and really doesn’t believe me.

But I do it anyway and it’s slowly sinking in. 

There are lots of situations where sugary sweets are present and I am not – and he overindulges just about every time.  He comes home feeling sick and we talk about why his stomach aches, his usually less than stellar behavior, and what to do the next time. 

He’s had a few instances where he is beginning to see the correlation between his behavior and how he is feeling and what he eats. 

Start the conversation and keep it going…and going.

I know it will take time. There are so many ridiculous places where sweets are offered-school parties and functions, boy scout meetings, track practice, band competitions, houses of friends and family, holidays, and birthday parties.

We really do have the power to change the world-one sucker at a time!!

Please share this article if you know of a mom who would benefit from this information.

The Big List of Foods to Avoid if you have ADHD

  • all artificial colors, such as:
    • blue 1 (Brilliant Blue)
    • blue 2 (Indigotine)
    • green 3 (Green S or Fast Green)
    • orange B
    • red 2 (Citrus Red)
    • red 3 (Erythrosine)
    • red 40 (Allura Red AC)
    • yellow 5 (Tartrazine)
    • yellow 6 (Sunset Yellow)
  • artificial flavorings, such as:
    • vanilla
    • peppermint (including mint-flavored toothpaste and mouthwash)
    • strawberry, raspberry
  • artificial preservatives –
    • butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
    • butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
    • tert-Butrylhdryquinone (TBHQ)
  • Foods that are common allergens, like gluten, corn, soy, and dairy.

Need more advice for an ADHD Diet?

Read about The Best Breakfasts for ADHD HERE – it’s our most popular post to date.

Here’s how we do lunches with ADHD. 

Our favorite snacks for ADHD are listed HERE.

Need some great unplugged gift ideas for ADHD kids? Get the guide, HERE.


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adhd and sugar