ADHD and Sugar Cravings

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

The Link Between Sugar and ADHD: Myth or Truth?  

“My child seems to crave carbs all the time! Does sugar make ADHD worse?”  

Does sugar calm ADHD or make it worse for my child?”  

Parents of children with ADHD ask questions like these all the time. While it may not be obvious to think that problems with attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity could be related to food cravings, there is a connection.  

Research shows that low levels of dopamine, the chemical in the brain thought to be at least partially responsible for ADHD symptoms, is also related to cravings for sugar and other carbohydrates. Why? Sugar and other high carb foods boost dopamine levels in the brain, leading us to crave them more often when dopamine levels are low. Since children with ADHD have chronically low levels of dopamine, they are more likely than other children to crave and eat sugary or carbohydrate-heavy foods. On top of this, their impulsive tendencies make it hard for them to stop eating these foods even when they are full.  

While the consequences of eating a diet high in sugar and other carbohydrates may not be immediately obvious in kids with ADHD, the long-term effects could be significant. Research shows that ADHD is a risk factor for obesity in adulthood. Knowing that children with ADHD are at risk for developing obesity later in life, it’s important to take steps early on to help them foster a healthy relationship with food. So, what are some things parents can do to help children with ADHD eat a more balanced diet?  

  • Encourage moderation. Provide a variety of food that include fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy grains, but also allow for some of their favorite treats. Keep in mind the link between ADHD and low blood sugar, as low blood sugar can mimic ADHD in certain ways. Consistent meals will help minimize blood sugar ups and downs. In general, following the 80/20 rule can help teach children how to eat well without giving up their favorite foods. With the 80/20 rule, 80% of the food you eat contains healthy carbs, fats, and protein, and 20% of the food you eat are less healthy foods (the foods your children ask for all the time!).  
  • Use strategies to help with impulse control. Many children with ADHD will have a hard time holding back when their favorite carb-heavy food is within reach. Many parents find these foods “disappearing” from the pantry or refrigerator just hours after they brought them home from the grocery store! Keeping these foods out of the house altogether is one way to stop your children from eating them too often. Alternatively, you can buy treats in single-serving sizes and do your best to closely monitor how often your children are helping themselves to the goodies. Lastly, having children fill up on healthy foods during meals and snacks will cut down on cravings throughout the day.  
  • Use alternative strategies to boost dopamine levels. Carbohydrates are just one of many things that boost dopamine levels in the brain. Exercise, participating in fun activities, and spending time with friends all provide a natural dopamine boost. Encourage your child to participate in activities that they enjoy, sign them up for team sports or individual sports (like swimming), and schedule social activities whenever possible. 
  • Consider medication for ADHD. If you remain concerned about your child’s eating habits, consider talking with your pediatrician about ADHD medication. Medications for ADHD work (in part) by boosting dopamine levels in the brain. 
  • Consult with a pediatric nutritionist. Nutritionists who specialize in working with children and their families have experience with a wide range of challenging eating behaviors. They can be an excellent resource for parents of children with ADHD. Consider consulting with a nutritionist to learn strategies that are tailored to meet your child’s unique needs.  

While it’s common for children with ADHD to crave a diet that’s high in sugar and other carbohydrates, the effects of these eating habits may contribute to health problems like obesity in adulthood. Keep in mind that the sugar and ADHD myth (a direct cause and effect) is indeed unproven, but a diet high in sugar does make ADHD worse. Don’t wait for things to improve on their own. Take steps now to help your child develop healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.  


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


Huntington Learning Center is the tutoring and test prep leader. Its certified tutors provide individualized instruction in reading, phonics, writing, study skills, elementary and middle school math, Algebra through Calculus, Chemistry, and other sciences. It preps for the SAT and ACT, as well as state and standardized exams. Huntington programs develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to help students of all levels succeed and meet the needs of Common Core State Standards. Founded in 1977, Huntington's mission is to give every student the best education possible. Call us today at 1.800.CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child. For franchise opportunities please visit

This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

Article Topics