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The Link Between ADHD and Sugar

written by: Keren Perles • edited by: Emma Lloyd • updated: 4/13/2011

Your friend says to avoid giving sugar to your child with ADHD, but your doctor disagrees. Who should you listen to? Researchers have studied the connection between ADHD and sugar. Here are both sides of the debate.

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    The Argument: Sugar Affects ADHD Symptoms

    ADHD diagnoses are soaring, and many parents are sure that refined sugar is the culprit. But is there really a connection between ADHD and sugar? Research does not seem to support any connection, but many parents are still convinced that there is one.

    This belief originated during the 1970s, and was reinforced by a paper published in Food and Cosmetic Toxicology which seemed to corroborate it. This study, conducted by Langseth and Dowd in 1978, looked at 261 children who were labeled "hyperactive." They found that 74% of these children had abnormal sugar metabolism, with reactive hypoglycemia after consuming refined sugar. In other words, these children produced higher amounts of insulin than normal after consuming the sugar, which lowered blood sugar levels and increased epinephrine levels drastically. Because hypoglycemia can lead to hyperactivity, it was assumed that sugar was a strong contributor to the hyperactivity of a child with ADHD.

    In 1995, additional research came out which seemed to confirm this claim. A team of researchers at Yale gave a standardized oral glucose challenge given to 17 children who had ADHD and 11 children who did not. This study, led by Dr. Girardi, found that sugar consumption led to other metabolic abnormalities in children with ADHD.

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    The Counterargument: Sugar Does Not Affect ADHD Symptoms

    Despite this evidence, most research fails to support the link between sugar and ADHD, and medical experts still maintain that sugar does not affect ADHD symptoms. As early as 1985, Dr. Mark Wolraich conducted a study in which he observed sixteen hyperactive children in a hospital for three days under controlled sugar levels. He concluded that sugar intake had no effect on learning and memory in a child with ADHD. Critics of the study cited its small sample size and short testing period.

    Other studies were even more eye-opening. In 1994, Dr. Richard Milich looked at 31 children whose parents believed that they were hyperactive when they consumed sugar. He gave all of them aspartame, a sugar substitute, but told the parents of half of the children that he had given them sugar instead. The parents who thought that their children had consumed sugar rated their children as more hyperactive than the parents who knew that their children had consumed aspartame. In other words, the study showed that parents' perceptions could be swayed by their belief systems.

    In general, studies in more recent years have failed to find a connection between sugar and ADHD symptoms. If you believe that you see a relationship between ADHD and sugar in your child, try removing all refined sugars from his or her diet for ten days, and then reintroduce them. If you see no difference in hyperactivity symptoms, you'll know that your child, too, does not react hyperactively after sugar consumption.

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    References

    NIMH. "What Causes ADHD?" http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder/what-causes-adhd.shtml

    Attitude Magazine. "Alternative ADHD Treatment: Can Diet Ease Symptoms?" http://www.additudemag.com/adhd/article/859-5.html

    My ADHD. "Causes of ADHD." http://www.myadhd.com/causesofadhd.html

    Empow Her. "Effects of Sugar Consumption on ADHD Symptoms." http://www.empowher.com/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/content/effects-sugar-consumption-adhd-symptoms

    ADD ADHD ADvances. "The Role of Sugar in ADHD." http://addadhdadvances.com/sugar.html

Possible Causes of ADD and ADHD

Did you ever wonder what causes ADD and ADHD? There appear to be many factors that can affect these disabilities. These articles explore several factors that researchers are looking at currently.
  1. Exploring the Causes of Attention Deficit Disorder
  2. Can Second-Hand Smoke Cause ADHD?
  3. Insight into the Hunter versus Farmer Theory of ADHD
  4. The Link Between ADHD and Sugar