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Effects of Sugar on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

By Stephanie Crumley Hill ; Updated August 14, 2017

In the continuing search for a definitive answer to the problem of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, researchers have evaluated a number of dietary approaches, including the effects of sugar on ADHD. While research does not support a connection between ingesting sugar and worsening ADHD symptoms, there is some evidence that for certain individuals sugar does make a difference.

Research Findings

A study in 1985 by Dr. Mark Wolraich lasted for three days, and studied 16 children in a hospital setting [Effects of sucrose ingestion on the behavior of hyperactive boys; M. Wolraich et al; "Journal of Pediatrics;" April 1985; 106(4), 675-82]. Critics argue that this small sample size studied for a limited duration in an artificial environment could not produce results that could reliably applied to the larger population of people with ADHD.

Another study by Drs. Hoover and Milich in 1994 studied 35 children whose mothers had described them as sugar sensitive. All of the children were given a sugar-free drink, but half of the mothers were told the drink contained sugars. All of those mothers rated their children as more hyperactive after consuming the beverage. Milich concluded that the problem was parental expectations, not sugar [Effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactions; D. W. Hoover and R. Milich; "Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology;" August 1994; 22(4), 501-5]. Critics argue with the small sample size, limited duration, and subjective nature of participant selection and testing outcomes the results could not be reliably applied to the larger population of people with ADHD.

Individual Variations

Every person with ADHD is an individual, and some people with ADHD do become more hyperactive when they eat sugar. According to studies reported by Dr. Anthony Kane of ADD ADHD Advances, symptoms are worse after eating sugar in some people with ADHD. Sugar is also void of nutrition, taking the place of other healthy foods in the diet; in fact, there are no recognizable advantages to having added sugar in the diet.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that there is a chance that sugar will make your ADHD symptoms worse. The best way to determine how you react to sugar is to cut all sugars out of your diet for several days, then have some fruit juice with added sugar. How you react to that beverage will give you information that can help you plan your dietary intake. You can mitigate the effects of sugar in your diet by keeping quantities limited, and always eating protein when you have a sweet snack.

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