The Sugar Controversy

Studies evaluating the effects of sugar on children with ADHD have had mixed results. In some, a number of children in the study reacted to sugar, and in others, none of the children had adverse reactions. Some of the studies were flawed because they used aspartame, milk, citrus, or wheat to disguise the sugar.

These foods and food additives by themselves turn some children on. Many parents don’t care what any of the studies have said. They know beyond a shadow of a doubt that sugar changes their children from a Dr. Jekyll to a Mr. Hyde.Sugar seems to be addictive for some children.

One hyperactive child would lick his fingers as he passed the sugar canister, dip his wet fingers into the sugar, and then lick them clean. He’d figured out how to get his fix! Another perceptive child would scream, “I need sugar now!”

To help determine how your child is affected by sugar, answer yes or no to the following questions:

  1. Does your child consume one or more glasses of soft drinks each day?
  2. Does your child drink fruit punch rather than 100 percent unsweetened fruit juice?
  3. Does your child eat a lot of cookies, candy, and sugary desserts?
  4. Does your child start the day with a highly sugared cereal?
  5. Does your child crave sugar? Is he a “sugarholic”?
  6. Has your child eve stolen candy or money to buy candy?
  7. Does your child’s behavior problems worsen around the holidays?
  8. Does your child suffer from repeated ear infections and take many rounds of antibiotics?

How do you really know whether sugar is a problem for your child? Decrease his sugar intake slowly over a few weeks. This includes table sugar (sucrose), corn syrup, honey, molasses, fructose, and maple syrup. In place of cookies with icing, buy cookie wafers. (Pepperidge Farm Chessman Cookies have less sugar than many cookies and do not have artificial colors, artificial flavors or partially hydrogenated fats.)

Stop buying candy. Replace fruit drinks with 100 percent fruit juices. Replace sugary treats with healthy snacks and foods. After your child has avoided sugar totally for a week, let him pig out on sugar for a couple of days. Is he worse in any way, physically or mentally?

If yes, then you have discovered one of the pieces of your child’s ADHD puzzle for your child.

Essential Fatty Acids

Does your child show symptoms of essential fatty acid deficiency:

  • excessive thirst
  • frequent urination
  • dry skin
  • dry hair
  • dandruff
  • soft or brittle nails
  • small, hard, white bumps on the backs of the arms, elbows or thighs.

If “yes,” adding “good” fatty acids to the diet might help these symptoms and your child’s behavior although the research into this is in early stages at Purdue University and other research centers.

Essential fatty acids are vital nutrients that must be consumed in the diet because humans can’t make these basic building blocks. There are two essential fatty acids: linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid and alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid. These are the parent molecules for making longer chained fatty acids.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important because they help compose the cell membrane around and within every cell, separating the watery contents of the cell from the watery fluid outside the cell. The balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids helps determine the fluidity of the membrane and which molecules enter and exit the cell. This balance also affects the ability of molecules to bind to receptors in the membrane.

These long chain fatty acids are also essential because the body converts them to important molecules that help cells communicate with each other. These fatty acids are more concentrated in the brain and retina than in other cells. They play a vital role in brain and nerve function.

Studies at Purdue University have reported that about 40% of boys with ADHD had more symptoms of essential fatty acid deficiency and had significantly lower levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids than controls with normal behavior. The reason for the lower levels is not known but could include lower dietary intake or a metabolic block in the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid pathway.

Here are some inexpensive ways to add good essential fatty acids–especially omega-3’s–to your child’s diet. Use pure, cold- pressed canola oils (1-2 tablespoons each day) for homemade salad dressings. Stir this oil into spaghetti sauce, chili, etc. Use canola oil to make pasta salad. Baking with canola oil is fine. But avoid frying because the fragile molecules are damaged by the high heat and oxygen. Keep the bottle of oil refrigerated.
An even richer source of omega-3 fatty acids is flaxseed and its oil. You could buy a bottle of flaxseed oil. Squeeze the contents of a vitamin E (alpha tocopherol only) capsule into the oil and slowly disperse without shaking. This will help keep the oil fresh. Keep refrigerated. It has a slightly fishy or nutty taste. Some children will take it off a spoon. Others need to have it disguised in other foods. One to 3 teaspoons a day may help your child. You could also buy flaxseed and grind it into a powder in a small, inexpensive coffee or spice mill. Then you could sprinkle a tablespoon on cereal, add it to a smoothie, stir into applesauce, add to spaghetti sauce, etc. You should also reduce partially hydrogenated oils and saturated fats that are prevalent in many prepared foods. These bad fats compete with the good essential fatty acids.

Beans are another good source of essential fatty acids–especially soy, navy and kidney. So is tofu. Cold water fish such as salmon, fresh tuna, mackerel or sardines are excellent sources of long chain omega-3 fatty acids although many kids would turn up their noses at these!

For more information about fatty acids and behavior please refer to these books: “Help for the Hyperactive Child” by William G. Crook, M.D., “Superimmunity for Kids” by Leo Galland, M.D., and my new book “12 Effective Ways to Help Your ADD/ADHD Child.” Your library or bookstore can order these for you or you can order them online at

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