Food and ADHD
Charu Ramanathan

Food and ADHD

Food and ADHD
Charu Ramanathan

Food and ADHD

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It was not until I became a little boy’s mother that I discovered the strong correlation between food and ADHD / hyperactivity.   

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

Breakfast makes my kid bounce off the walls!

As an eager first-time parent, I ensured my son always ate breakfast.  Typically, we had bowls of cereal he loved.  Like fruit loops or honey nut cheerios.  When I had more time, I cooked scrambled eggs or oatmeal.  He loved his sweet 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.  He was boisterous in the classroom, 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 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 about 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. 

An abundance of sugar, a 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! On the days my son had sugary cereal, he had episodes of hyperactive behaviors versus the days he ate eggs or oatmeal.  What I call hyperactive behaviors is my son having difficulty 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 and the 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 no medical evidence 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.   Over the next few months, many more common foods joined the ‘do not eat’ list.  FYI, the food and drug administration has a very nice tutorial on interpreting 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 using food colors was common to make foods appear enticing. The influence of food color on ADHD or even the ability to promote cancer is another inconclusive and controversial topic with even more scattered opinions.  I concluded that if an ingredient did not come directly from a plant (the green kind with leaves) or an animal, it most likely came from a Plant (the chemical kind).  And I did not want my family to eat 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 an adult’s self-regulation or masking abilities, thus the ‘inappropriate’ behaviors. I am not saying that all children diagnosed with severe ADHD will be miraculously treated with a good diet. I strongly believe that a good diet may complement other therapy and 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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About the Author

Dr. Charu Ramanathan is a repeat entrepreneur, passionate about using technology to positively impact and elevate human life. She is the co-founder and CEO of vitalxchange, a patient focused health network centered around people, patients, caregivers and families. Vitalxchange uses advanced AI technology to match community members with others in similar situations as well as information and resources to thrive. She is also the co-founder and Chairman of the Board of Lokyata Global, which is developing advanced credit scoring algorithms to foster financial inclusion in emerging economies. Prior to this, she co-founded CardioInsight, a Company specializing in noninvasive cardiac imaging systems. She led CardioInsight through its growth stages and ultimately its acquisition by Medtronic in 2015. Dr. Ramanathan has been the recipient of several awards for her contributions to technology and humanity including Crain’s 40 under 40, TiE Immigrant Entrepreneur and American Red Cross Hero. She holds a BS from Cochin University and PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Case Western Reserve University, USA.

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