ADHD Foods to Avoid

I get crazy passionate about getting the word out to families and kids struggling with ADHD that what they put into their mouths really matters. 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 it’s not just the 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. 

The Back Story about my ADHD Kiddos

I had a reason to research how food affects ADHD – my oldest son.  He is 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. 

We do out best to stay on an ADHD diet – we stay away from gluten, and corn and dairy(mostly!) and try to be super low on sugar. I watch how many gluten-free foods we consume as they are highly processed and not exactly healthy.

But my son is getting older and often without me at parties, campouts, etc. Moderation is not his forte and despite our talks and advising, he usually returns from these events  with a “sugar” hangover.

He’s emotional, angry, mean, and combative. It’s a very, very difficult “next day” for all of us. 

So I wanted to learn more about ADHD and sugar.

I found out so many reasons to avoid sugar – and everything that comes with it! 

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.

Related: ADHD Diet 101

“Sugar” and ADHD might be worse than you think

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

adhd and sugar

Be wary – sugar comes in many forms.

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.

In order to deceive and manipulate the general public, the Corn Industry continues to defend High Fructose Corn Syrup by spending millions on commercials.

Their advertising campaign claims that Medical and Nutrition Experts have determined HFCS is NOT unhealthy, and that it’s “no different than regular sugar.”

This just isn’t true. 

High Fructose Corn Syrup is not Sugar

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

However, many manufacturers are trying to deceive the public by calling HFCS by another name.

Check labels for:

    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 – it’s all garbage!!

While I don’t have time to single handedly take on the corn industry, I can make sure I continue to make good choices for my family and educate my growing sons. 

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.

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,

25 grams of 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

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.

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. (The boys get soda on their birthdays and my oldest is learning to moderate at other events!)
  • We have two “treat days” a week where my boys can choose a small dessert made with natural sweetener. 
  • 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 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.

Sugar is everywhere!

You may have seen 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 and your children, 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!) feel the pressure.

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 do not purchase foods with high fructose corn syrup and all forms of corn sweeteners. My kids read labels.  

But, we struggle with this every single day. 

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 14 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 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. 

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

We read labels and make better choices.

There are sweets out there made decent ingredients like organic honey and dyes from spices or plants. You just have to look. 

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 12 and 14, 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.

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


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adhd and sugar