The ADHD Diet and Sugar

sugar and adhd


I have known for a long time that sugar is one of the foods to avoid for a hyperactive child, but I didn’t know just how bad sugar really is.

I read countless articles and books and watched movies(like this, this and this one) about nutrition, but this article and the embedded video about sugar, by Katie at Wellness Mama, gets my blood boiling and makes me crazy passionate about getting the word out – especially to families of kids with ADHD. 

So I wanted to learn more about ADHD and sugar. I found out just how horrible sugar is for the ADHD brain.

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.

Sugar and ADHD is worse than you think

These facts, when seen together, really paint a horrible picture for sugar.

Even moderation is not the best solution.

 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.

Moderation is a very difficult thing to put into practice when you are talking about highly addictive sugar and the ADHD brain. 

What is moderation, anyway? For most people moderation is way over the daily recommended allowance.

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

Kids should eat less than 25 grams of sugar a day.

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 the less than 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, 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.

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

adhd and sugar

Ideas to lower sugar for an ADHD Diet

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

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

  • 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. (The boys get soda on their birthdays!)
  • We have two “treat days” a week where my boys can choose a small dessert(like 8 jelly beans, small).
  • We limit processed foods to one packaged item per day, in their lunch.  Their choices may include organic sweet potato chips, Kids Clif protein bars(or other organic, lower in sugar bars), Harvest pea crisps, 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.
  • 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 any icky feelings we may have after eating not so healthy choices.
  • We try to get 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 can do better.

I posted the photo above on IG when we were shopping for a new fridge. Yes, there is a Dylan’s Candy Bar inside the appliance store and yes, we bought something for my son. Businesses are so savvy about selling to you, aren’t they? Sugar is a great way to keep bored, whiny kids happy and lots of people take advantage of it and lots of parents(like us!) cave.

Truth be told, even though we cave from time to time, we are already one of the “weird” families that don’t drink juice or soda or eat cereal. I stay away from high fructose corn syrup and all forms of corn sweeteners 

We struggle with this every single day. 

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

I feel his pain, but I do not give in.  

We have conversations daily 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. 

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.

Eating Healthy is a Social Stigma 

Unfortunately, there seems to be a social stigma associated with eating healthy and saying no to your kids.  I do not want my kids to always feel alienated or different.  So I do cave sometimes and let them eat sugary, processed foods.

And I hate that I do that.

My hope is that if enough people get educated about sugar, I won’t have to say no so much, because the options will just not be there.  At 10 and 13, my boys are not easily convinced that sugar is THAT bad-especially when they see everyone eating it in large quantities all around them.  If given the choice, they would eat tons of it, I am sure.  But for now, I will keep talking and educating them and making choices that are healthier for us.

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

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

I want to hear what you think – this can be a controversial topic. Tell me in the comments how your ADHD kiddos handle sugar.

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.


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adhd and sugar