The Link Between Sugar and ADHD

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The idea that sugar can cause ADHD or make ADHD symptoms worse is a pervasive myth that continues to be widely believed, despite a growing body of research that suggests it simply isn’t true. This persistent belief is likely because there seems to be a link between sugar consumption and ADHD.

In this article, we’ll look at what the science says about the link between sugar and ADHD and what you can do about your sugar intake if you feel it’s negatively impacting your mental health.   

Sugar Does Not Cause ADHD

Sugar can cause a burst of energy popularly known as a sugar rush, but this should not be confused with ADHD-related hyperactivity. Studies on the connection between sugar and ADHD have found little to no evidence that sugar influences ADHD symptoms, let alone causes the neurodevelopmental disorder.

What the evidence does suggest is that there is a positive association between sugar intake—particularly from sweetened beverages—and ADHD risk. However, association does not mean one causes the other. In a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies on the relationship between ADHD and sugar, researchers found that “sugar alone did not increase the risk of developing ADHD symptoms.”

In other words, people who consumed more sugar were more likely to have ADHD symptoms than those who didn’t, but sugar was not the cause of the increased ADHD risk.

Another meta-analysis on the effects of sugar on behavior and cognition concluded that sugar had no effect on cognitive performance or behavior and that the strong belief among caretakers that there was an effect was likely due to the expectation that sugar does cause hyperactivity and other symptoms.

While some of the studies included in these reviews did conclude that sugar intake contributed to ADHD symptoms, there were too many confounding factors to draw any firm conclusions.

For one, many studies relied on information from questionnaires given to parents or caretakers of children with ADHD rather than direct observation or interviews with ADHD patients. Research shows that parents who expect sugar to make their children hyperactive are more likely to perceive their children as hyperactive after consuming sugar than an outside observer.

One study even found that just telling parents that their children had consumed sugar even though they hadn’t resulted in those parents rating their children as more hyperactive.

Another confounding factor is that the sugary foods and beverages consumed contain many other ingredients, including caffeine and micronutrients, that could potentially impact energy levels and behavior. So determining the role that sugar specifically played is hard.

Understanding the Relationship Between Sugar and ADHD

There may not be enough evidence to say that sugar is a direct cause of ADHD, but what does that “positive association” mean, then? Right now, there’s not enough data to say with certainty how sugar impacts ADHD, but researchers do have some theories.

Sugary Diets Are Also Low in Nutrients

One of the leading theories is that ADHD symptoms are made worse by nutritional deficiencies, and diets high in sugary foods and beverages tend to also be low in nutritious foods. Many of the studies evaluated the intake specifically of refined sugar, the kind found in processed sugary foods like juice, soda, candy, and desserts. These processed foods not only tend to contain higher quantities of sugar than naturally occurring sweet foods like fruit, but they also contain less fiber, protein, and other nutrients that the body needs to function.

One systematic review of the relationship between diet and ADHD found that while a nutrient-lacking diet didn’t necessarily make symptoms worse, a nutritious diet tended to have a “protective effect” against ADHD in the form of reducing symptom severity.

In other words, nutrient-poor diets don’t cause ADHD, but they do leave people with ADHD more vulnerable to the symptoms of their disorder.

For example, people with ADHD often have lower levels of iron and zinc, both of which play a role in regulating dopamine function. A diet high in sugary, nutrient-lacking processed foods isn’t providing the iron and zinc people with ADHD need to increase levels of those key dopamine regulators.

Sugar Activates the Dopamine System

Another theory is that increased sugar intake is a consequence, rather than a cause, of ADHD. Impulsivity and the preference for immediate rewards rather than delayed rewards make people with ADHD prone to crave sugary foods because sugar triggers a dopamine response in the brain.

Because the dopamine system is already severely dysregulated in ADHD, sugar’s ability to activate it might lead to a kind of self-medicating behavior where people with ADHD consume sugary foods or drinks in order to compensate for low dopamine levels. According to this theory, then, sugar isn’t the cause of ADHD symptoms; it’s an attempt—conscious or unconscious—to treat them.

How to Cut Back on Sugar and Switch to an ADHD-Protective Diet

Even if a diet high in sugar doesn’t cause ADHD, it can cause plenty of other health problems like heart disease and tooth decay. Likewise, even though a healthy diet won’t cure your ADHD, it can make your symptoms easier to manage. So it’s still worth cutting back on sugar and replacing processed foods with more nutritious items. Here are a few ADHD-friendly tips for reducing sugar and improving your diet.

Don’t Keep Sugary Snacks in the House

Impulse control is hard for people with ADHD. On the upside, object permanence is also hard, so if the sugary snacks aren’t right in front of you, you might not think about them as much.  If you can’t ignore the craving, keeping them out of the house at least makes the sugary snack harder to get.

If possible, enforce a rule that you must walk or bike to the store to pick up the snack (and only buy enough to indulge the current craving). The physical activity may help boost dopamine levels enough to make the craving less intense. If not, at least you got some exercise in before eating the sugar.

Eat a Fruit or Vegetable first

ADHD brains can be stubborn once they fixate on a reward they want (like the cookies you’re craving), so it can be hard to ignore a craving. But if you eat a big handful of carrots or an entire banana before you reach for the cookies, it can be easier to eat a smaller portion of the sugary snack.

It might also help modify your dietary habits in the long run because you’re effectively rewarding yourself with a dopamine-releasing cookie every time you eat a fruit or veggie. At the very least, it ensures you’re getting some nutrient-rich foods into your diet, even if you’re not yet ready to give up your favorite snacks.

By the same token, drink a glass of water before a sugary beverage. When you’re thirsty, and you’re craving soda or juice, fill your glass with water first. Chug that and then pour the juice or soda. By the time you start drinking the juice or soda, you can sip it to savor the taste rather than gulping it down to quench your thirst.

Don’t Overcomplicate It with Strict Diets

Having ADHD can make sticking to even the simplest routine seem impossible. Hence, a rigid diet where you’re denying yourself entire food categories or meticulously counting calories is not ideal. Instead of trying to adhere to a completely unfamiliar and strict diet plan, take it one step at a time and opt for simple changes.

You don’t have to give up your favorite sugary foods, try to gradually eat less of them than usual. You don’t have to stock up on the latest expensive superfood, buy some carrots, apples, and other produce that doesn’t spoil too quickly, and make sure those are the first things you see when you open the fridge.

Experiment With Alternative Dopamine Boosters

Since the sugar craving might be your brain’s way of saying it’s low on dopamine, finding other ways to boost dopamine levels can help address that problem without resorting to sugar. Some dopamine-boosting alternatives to sugar include:

  • Spicy or flavorful foods. Peppers and other foods that cause a burning sensation also trigger the release of dopamine and endorphins. If you can’t stand the heat, some research suggests that other aromatic herbs and spices like rosemary, sage, lavender, cinnamon, nutmeg, and so on provide a similar dopamine-boosting effect.
  • Fun physical activity. Exercise is one of the most well-researched ways to boost dopamine levels. “Working out” might sound like an unbearable chore, but there are lots of ways to incorporate regular exercise into your day without ever even glancing at a treadmill. Dance around the house to your favorite playlist when you’re getting ready in the morning. Go for a walk in a nearby park during lunch. Try hiking, horseback riding, tennis, surfing, gymnastics, or literally any activity that catches your interest on the weekends.
  • Go outside in the sunlight. Some research suggests that sunlight may increase dopamine synthesis. Find ways to move some of your daily activities outdoors during the day. Move your coffee date to the park. Grab your laptop and answer emails while sitting on the bench outside your office. Head out to your backyard to take that phone call. Just remember to wear sunscreen.

In the long run, incorporating more of these activities and foods into your daily routine may help reduce the number of sugar cravings you have. 

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachael Green
Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.