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Question: My daughter is ten and has ADHD. I’ve heard some people say her ADHD symptoms are caused by eating too much sugar, but I really do try to watch what she eats. We limit candy and other sweets, although she’s allowed to have an occasional treat. Should we cut sugar entirely from her foods?
—Midwest Regional Parent
Answer: Cutting out sugar entirely does not necessarily need to be part of your daughter’s ADHD treatment plan. Repeated research shows that sugar does not cause hyperactivity or aggravate most people’s ADHD symptoms.
Pediatrician Mark Wolraich has taken up the question of sugar and ADHD. His research did not find that sugar on its own had an effect on the behavior or cognitive performance of children.
“The strong belief of parents [that sugar consumption affects behavior] may be due to expectancy and common association,” Dr. Wolraich writes in research on this topic. “However, a small effect of sugar or effects on subsets of children cannot be ruled out.”
Most sugary treats and foods also tend to be very colorful and shelf-stable due to the artificial colors and preservatives included in the ingredients. A study in the Lancet medical journal found that some children experienced an increase in hyperactive behavior for a limited amount of time when they consumed foods or drinks with certain artificial colors and preservatives.
So, could it be the artificial colors and preservatives in a sweet food that prompt children to become more hyperactive and not the sugar? Possibly. The research is not conclusive enough for a definite answer.
If you think your child is sensitive to either sugar or artificial coloring or additives, discuss this with her doctor, who might refer you to an allergy specialist for evaluation or a dietician to recommend food choices that limit additives.
Whether your daughter’s ADHD symptoms are affected by candy or sugary foods or not, limiting the amount of sugar in her foods is still a good idea. Too much sugar can lead to problems with weight, dental cavities, and overall poor health. Fruits such as oranges, bananas, and berries can be a sweet treat and contain many health benefits for children.
Learn more about the Midwest Regional CHADD Center.
Want to know more about the possible effects on behavior from sugar, artificial colors, and preservatives?
- Nutrition and ADHD
- What Your Food Isn’t Telling You: Its Effects on ADHD
- ADHD & Obesity: An Under-Recognized Problem
- Artificial Food Dyes and ADHD
- Do Artificial Food Colors Cause ADHD Symptoms?
Join the discussion: what additional advice would you share with the parent?