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ADHD and Sugar Cravings: Is There A Link?

Various types of sugar on a table with text that says "ADHD and Sugar Cravings: Is There a Link?"

ADHD and Sugar Cravings: Is There A Link? was written by Jennifer Cope and reviewed/edited by Jackie Silver MHSc, RD

Medical Disclaimer: The information in this article is meant for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be personalized medical or nutrition advice. For a plan tailored to your needs, please consult with a Registered Dietitian or qualified healthcare professional.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links with which I may earn a small commission but at no additional cost to you. Affiliate links help bloggers like me to provide you with free content. All opinions expressed here are genuine. 

Last updated: March 27, 2024

Sweets are loved by many, and for different reasons. Some people use sweets as a pick-me-up after a bad day, others like the routine of having a sweet treat after dinner, and others may like to eat sugar on special occasions. Whether for comfort, routine or celebration, sugar is ingrained in our lives for many different purposes. 

But what happens when you start to want sugar more often? When you’re hit with major sugar cravings that feel impossible to satisfy?

People with ADHD often report higher sugar intake than people without ADHD. Read below to find out why ADHD and sugar cravings are linked, and how to manage sugar cravings. 

A group of high sugar foods and snacks with a spoonful of sugar that has "SUGAR" written on it - ADHD and Sugar Cravings

It’s important to emphasize that our intention is not to demonize sugar. We firmly believe in the concept of balanced eating, without categorizing foods as “good” or “bad.” Sugar can certainly be included in a well-rounded diet.

This article aims to address the challenge many individuals face with managing sugar cravings and offer strategies to cope with them more effectively.

ADHD and Sugar Cravings: What Is Sugar Addiction?

Sugar addiction is a form of food addiction with reliance on sweet food and drinks. When sugar addiction is discussed, the focus is on sugars that are added to foods and drinks or sugars from unsweetened fruit juice, honey, or syrup. 

Sugar addiction is not a diagnosis, but evidence shows that consuming excess amounts of sugar can cause behaviors similar to those seen in addiction, like binge-eating, cravings, and withdrawal. This is because sweet-tasting foods stimulate some of the same areas of the brain as addictive drugs

Now that you know what sugar addiction is, it may be helpful to understand how sugar can make you feel addicted. Sugar can increase dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is involved with feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, reward and reinforcement. Dopamine is also involved in mood, sleep, learning, and attention. 

A graphic explaining what dopamine does

Eating more sugar will cause your brain to produce more dopamine. As you produce more dopamine, you will feel rewarded, and this might reinforce the need to eat more sugar to continue feeling these effects. 

Similar to addictive drugs or alcohol, you begin to need more sugar over time to satisfy those cravings. Over time, as sugar intake increases, the dopamine receptors in your brain become less sensitive, making you need to eat more sugar to feel the same sense of reward. 

A graph showing the ADHD and sugar cravings cycle

What Is The Link Between ADHD and Sugar Cravings?

ADHD and sugar cravings have been linked by research. People with ADHD have low levels of dopamine, which means they are more likely to seek dopamine from other sources. 

People with ADHD specifically may be more prone to sugar cravings because when dopamine is low, sugar is an easy and delicious way of increasing it. Over time, people with ADHD may depend on sugar to activate the reward center of the brain and increase mood. 

Several studies investigating the link between ADHD and sugar cravings have primarily involved rats, with findings often extrapolated to humans. It’s crucial to recognize that these findings may not directly translate to humans. Human-based research is generally preferred, yet currently, the most substantial evidence available stems from studies conducted on rats.

Why Do You Crave Sugar?

Having ADHD and sugar cravings can be intense, so much so that sugar cravings have been compared to cigarette cravings. Knowing why you experience sugar cravings may help you understand and better manage them. 

The simplest reason you might be craving sugar is that sugar tastes good. When the taste buds are fed sugar often, they also start to want that taste more often, causing a craving for the sweet taste. 

Sugar cravings can also happen when you are not eating enough. When you eat less food than your body needs, sugar is the fastest source of fuel that your body can use. Sugar gives you quick energy for a short time before the inevitable sugar crash, so you may also find yourself eating too much sugar when you’re tired. 

When you are stressed, you may also notice more cravings for sugar. This is because ghrelin, the hormone that increases appetite, is released by stress hormones. Higher ghrelin causes a larger appetite, which may cause you to reach for a quick source of energy like sugar. 

A graphic listing why people crave sugar

Self-Compassion in People with ADHD and Sugar Cravings

Before we get into tips for managing ADHD and sugar cravings, it’s important to talk about self-compassion. Many adults with ADHD report lower self-compassion than those without ADHD. 

Self-compassion is made up of three components: 

  1. Self kindness and self-judgment
  2. Mindfulness and overidentification
  3. Common humanity and isolation

When you achieve all three components of self-compassion, you acknowledge that others have similar struggles to you, you accept negative thoughts and emotions, and you treat yourself with kindness. 

When trying to form new habits, it can be easy to feel discouraged if things don’t go exactly as planned, or when things are challenging. If you are trying to curb your sugar cravings, it is important to be compassionate with yourself. 

Please know that many people with ADHD have similar struggles to you with sugar cravings and you are not alone. 

Don’t beat yourself up when you feel you “slipped up” and ate a lot of sugar. Tomorrow is a new day and not every day is going to go well.

How Can You Manage ADHD and Sugar Cravings?

A graphic listing how to manage sugar cravings - ADHD and sugar cravings
  1. Eat a balanced diet

Fruits, vegetables, proteins and complex carbohydrates are all important components of a balanced diet. Complex carbohydrates are foods like whole grains and legumes. Eating a balanced diet including enough fiber and protein will help you to feel full and curb some of your sugar cravings. 

  1. Eat regular, balanced meals

Eating regularly throughout the day will help you avoid that major hunger you feel when you miss a meal. When we miss a meal, we often end up overeating something that is easy to make or is pre-made, which can often be something sweet. Check out our blog post on mechanical eating for tips on how to eat consistently. 

  1. Incorporate protein into your sweet snacks 

When we’re craving something sweet, it is not possible to ignore that feeling every time. Balanced diets can include sweets, but pairing them with protein will be more satisfying and stop you from overeating your favorite treats. Try these high protein snack ideas.  

A plate of energy balls - a good high protein snack for ADHD and sugar cravings
  1. Plan and prepare meals at home 

Planning what you’re going to make in advance and preparing meals at home is a great way to avoid last-minute decisions or defaulting to sweet foods for people with ADHD and sugar cravings. Sign up for Meal Prep Made Easy: Neurodivergent Meal Prep Essentials for great meal prep tips or check out this blog post

  1. Drink enough water 

To humans, hunger and thirst signals feel very similar. If you drink enough water throughout the day, it will be harder to get confused between hunger and thirst, and you can avoid defaulting to eating sweets when you’re not truly hungry. 

  1. Hold yourself accountable 

If you have ADHD and sugar cravings and are on a journey to reduce sugar intake, it is important to hold yourself accountable to reach your goals. One way of doing this is by keeping a journal. You could also set this goal with a friend or family member and keep each other accountable. 

  1. Practice mindful eating

For those with ADHD and sugar cravings, mindful eating can be helpful by forcing you to be present and increase awareness of what you’re eating, as well as what you’re feeling. 

One mindful eating strategy is to eat slowly, which will allow you to pay more attention to your senses. You can think about the taste, texture, what you see and what you hear while you eat. This can help you understand how different foods make you feel, allowing you to be more present while eating. 

Savoring your sweets more slowly may help you realize you don’t need as much as you thought to be satisfied. 

You can also ask yourself a few questions before you eat: Am I hungry? What type of food or drink do I want? These questions can help you be more mindful about when and what you decide to eat. 

Check out our blog post on intuitive eating for neurodivergent individuals for more info.

A collection of healthy foods with text that says "MINDFUL EATING"
  1. Practice self-compassion 

If you have ADHD and sugar cravings, practicing self-compassion is essential. If your journey to manage your sugar cravings does not go exactly as planned, it is important to be kind to yourself. Acknowledging that not every day will be perfect but continuing to try anyways is key when building new habits. 

Lower Sugar, Higher Fiber Dessert Recipes For ADHD and Sugar Cravings

Explore these recipes to indulge your sweet cravings while boosting your fiber intake and enjoying a satisfying snack.

  1. No Bake Chocolate Peanut Butter Oat Bars 
  2. Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Banana Bread 
  3. Raspberry Oatmeal Muffins 
  4. High Fibre Vegan Oatmeal Banana Muffins 
  5. Double Chocolate Cranberry Cookies 

How To Increase Dopamine Without Sugar

Disclaimer: You may see other suggestions online for increasing dopamine naturally, but many of these suggestions have little research to back them up. The suggestions below are evidence-based. 

A graphic showing 3 dopamine increasing activities
  1. Get some exercise

One way to increase dopamine without eating sugar if you have ADHD and sugar cravings is to get some exercise. Physical activity, specifically aerobic exercise has been proven to release dopamine in people with ADHD. So next time you feel a craving for sugar, try going on a walk to increase dopamine. 

  1. Get enough sleep 

As you have probably been told, sleep is extremely important. A good night’s rest is important for both your brain and your body. Getting enough sleep can also increase the amount of dopamine your body makes and absorbs, specifically during REM sleep, when you’re dreaming and your brain is most active. 

  1. Listen to music 

One study proved that dopamine is released when you listen to music that makes you feel pleasure. That means that you may be increasing dopamine already just by listening to your favorite songs. 

A woman listening to music with headphones - ADHD and sugar cravings

ADHD and Sugar Cravings: The Bottom Line

Overall, the link between ADHD and sugar cravings exists. ADHD causes people to seek dopamine from outside sources like sugar, which increases the likelihood of experiencing sugar cravings. 

If you’re trying to decrease your sugar intake and manage sugar cravings, strategies like eating a balanced diet and drinking enough water can be helpful. It is important to remember not to be too hard on yourself during this process. There may be some bumps in the road, but a little self-compassion goes a long way when trying to form new habits. 

What strategies have helped you manage your sugar cravings? Let us know in the comments below!

Looking for more evidence-based posts? Check out: 

References

Ahmed, S. H., Guillem, K., & Vandaele, Y. (2013). Sugar addiction: Pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 16(4), 434–439. https://doi.org/10.1097/MCO.0b013e328361c8b8

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Is it time to Reappraise the Role of Sugar Consumption? (n.d.). https://doi.org/10.3810/pgm.2011.09.2458

Beaton, D. M., Sirois, F., & Milne, E. (2022). The role of self‐compassion in the mental health of adults with ADHD. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 78(12), 2497–2512. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.23354

Candy Crush: Why You’re Craving Sweets and How To Stop. (n.d.). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved March 8, 2024, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-am-i-craving-sweets

Davis, C. (2010). Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Associations with Overeating and Obesity. Current Psychiatry Reports, 12(5), 389–395. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-010-0133-7

Dinu, L. M., Singh, S. N., Baker, N. S., Georgescu, A. L., Singer, B. F., Overton, P. G., & Dommett, E. J. (2023). The Effects of Different Exercise Approaches on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Adults: A Randomised Controlled Trial. Behavioral Sciences, 13(2). https://doi.org/10.3390/bs13020129

Dopamine: What It Is, Function & Symptoms. (n.d.). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved March 8, 2024, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22581-dopamine

EDV-Mindful-eating.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved March 8, 2024, from https://www.eatingdisorders.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/EDV-Mindful-eating.pdf

EJPD_2019_20_2_1.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved March 7, 2024, from https://www-ejpd-eu.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/pdf/EJPD_2019_20_2_1.pdf

Flaggert, O. (2017, October 16). The Effects of a High Sugar Diet on the Brain—TIND Neurology. Texas Institute for Neurological Disorders. https://www.texasinstituteforneurologicaldisorders.com/uncategorized/effects-high-sugar-diet-brain/

Greenberg, D., & St. Peter, J. V. (2021). Sugars and Sweet Taste: Addictive or Rewarding? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(18), 9791. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18189791

How To Break Your Sugar Addiction. (n.d.). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved March 8, 2024, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-to-stop-sugar-cravings

How to Practice Mindful Eating. (n.d.). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved March 8, 2024, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/mindful-eating

Kesner, A. J., & Lovinger, D. M. (2021). Wake up and smell the dopamine: New mechanisms mediating dopamine activity fluctuations related to sleep and psychostimulant sensitivity. Neuropsychopharmacology, 46(4), 683. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-020-00903-5

Ng, Q. X., Ho, C. Y. X., Chan, H. W., Yong, B. Z. J., & Yeo, W.-S. (2017a). Managing childhood and adolescent attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with exercise: A systematic review. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 34, 123–128. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2017.08.018

Ng, Q. X., Ho, C. Y. X., Chan, H. W., Yong, B. Z. J., & Yeo, W.-S. (2017b). Managing childhood and adolescent attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with exercise: A systematic review. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 34, 123–128. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2017.08.018

Salimpoor, V. N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience, 14(2), 257–262. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2726

Sugar Addiction. (n.d.). Addiction Center. Retrieved March 8, 2024, from https://www.addictioncenter.com/drugs/sugar-addiction/

Watson, S. (2021, July 20). Dopamine: The pathway to pleasure. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/dopamine-the-pathway-to-pleasure

Westwater, M. L., Fletcher, P. C., & Ziauddeen, H. (2016). Sugar addiction: The state of the science. European Journal of Nutrition, 55(S2), 55–69. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6

Wiss, D. A., Avena, N., & Rada, P. (2018). Sugar Addiction: From Evolution to Revolution. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9, 545. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00545

A headshot of Jennifer Cope

About Jennifer

Meet Jennifer, a dietetic practicum student at Jackie Silver Nutrition. Jennifer has a BASc from the University of Guelph in Applied Human Nutrition, and she is currently at Western University for her one-year dietetic practicum, after which she aspires to be a dietitian. Outside of learning, Jennifer enjoys moving her body, reading, and trying new recipes.

About Jackie

Jackie is a Toronto-based Registered Dietitian whose mission is to empower and support the neurodivergent and physically disabled communities through nutrition. Jackie runs a virtual private practice and blog which has simple recipes and health information tailored to these communities. She loves cooking, exercising, traveling, journaling, and spending time with family and friends.

Check out her full bio here →

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