young child playing in sprinklers
Charu Ramanathan

It was not until I became the mother of a little boy that I started to discover the strong correlation between food and increased ADHD / hyperactivity.   

In fact, I did not know there was something called Attention Deficit or Hyperactivity till then.

Breakfast makes my kid bounce off the walls!

Being an eager first time parent, I made sure my son always ate breakfast.  Typically, we had bowls of cereal he loved – like fruit loops or honey nut cheerios, and when I had a bit more time I cooked scrambled eggs or oatmeal.  He loved his sweat cereal and busy mornings meant pleasing the cute monster more often than not!   While I did not notice much change in his behaviors at home, I started hearing complaints from his school that he was boisterous in the classroom, he was racing to finish his work so he could bother others, and small things like that.   His teacher then told me, rather casually and randomly, that I should not be surprised if someone down the line diagnosed that my son with ADHD.

ADHD ..what?

My mouth literally fell open!  I had no clue what this ominous sounding phrase was!  So I started researching ADHD.  Most of the information I gathered was around learning disability programs at schools and tons of promotions for drugs like Ritalin and Adderall.  I was more interested in what causes ADHD and how it can be addressed without harsh intervention or therapies. 

Abundance of sugar, deficit of attention

At first, I made a casual observation that my son was becoming quite hyperactive after eating candy.   I began systematically making observations to see if sugar was the culprit.  My data was irrefutable! The days my son had sugary cereal, he had episodes of hyperactive behaviors vs the days he ate eggs or oatmeal.  What I am calling hyperactive behaviors is my son having an unusually difficult time focusing on tasks, listening to instructions or controlling impulses. The icing on the cake (no pun intended) was Halloween – it was a nightmare that eve to get him to bed!   My research was conclusive – sugar was the main and repeat offender.  However, our doctor as well as research studies I read kept insisting that there was no definitive correlation. 

Wisdom of peer experience

I started talking to other parents.  There was not a single instance, not even one, where a parent disagreed that sugar was not associated with hyperactivity and worsening ADHD (in those kids that were diagnosed as such).  Looking at the consistent and unbiased feedback I was getting from parents who day after day made similar observations, I made a decision.  Sugar, you are banished from our lives, you will never grace our breakfast, lunch or dinner table again!  I don’t care if there is no medical evidence that directly supports sugar and adhd, I chose to avoid sugar because there is tons of evidence that sugar is the main cause of childhood obesity and chronic illnesses. 

Can’t read, won’t eat

Once I concluded enemy #1 was sugar, I started to pay attention to nutrition labels on food.  If a label had ingredients I could not easily read, pronounce or guess where it was coming from, I put it back on the shelf.  If a food had more than 5 ingredients, I became suspicious and tried to avoid it.   Many more common foods joined the ‘do not eat’ list over the next few months.  FYI, the food and drug administration has a very nice tutorial on how to interpret nutrition labels. 

Like colorful snakes, colorful processed foods are most likely harmful

When I started reading nutrition labels, I made the observation that many labels had odd references to colors – Yellow 5, Blue 2, Red 40…. I started looking into it.  I discovered that the use of food colors was quite common to make foods appear enticing. The influence of food color on ADHD or even ability to promote cancer yet again another inconclusive and controversial topic with even more scattered opinions.  I made the conclusion that if an ingredient did not come directly from a plant (the green kind with leaves) or from an animal, it most likely came from a Plant (the chemical kind).  And I did not want my family eating chemicals.  So food color, join sugar on the offender list! Here is another good read on the topic


Whether you are a child or an adult, sugary colored foods will result in lower focus, a ‘jittery’ brain and long term chronic illnesses like diabetes or obesity.  A child is less prone to having the self-regulation or masking abilities of an adult, thus the ‘inappropriate’ behaviors. I am not saying that all children diagnosed with severe ADHD will be miraculously treated just with a good diet. What I strongly believe in is that a good diet may complement other therapy and also has many other (proven) benefits of better long term overall health.

My experience as a first time parent helped me make a lot of discoveries that not only helped us address our son’s hyperactivity but also helped all of us as a family embrace the philosophy of ‘food’ as medicine or responsible eating.    In this journey, I also discovered my own ADHD propensities – a story for another time…

More lessons and responsible eating episodes to coming soon!

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