Does sugar affect concentration?

Sugar is often demonised in the “ADHD Nutrition” sphere, but in reality, it can normally fit into a balanced, brain-friendly diet by following a few simple guidelines. But first things first: why can sugar be a problem?

Reason #1: The Spike. When we eat a food that’s high in sugar and low in protein, fat, and fibre, it causes a quick and short-lived spike in blood sugar. For a lot of people, this means a boost of energy (aka “sugar rush”) that can make it hard to sit still. It can also increase distractibility which is problematic when you’re trying to get a project or task completed.

Reason #2: The Crash. What goes up must come down! After a blood sugar spike, our body works extra hard to lower sugar levels which often drop to less-than-ideal levels (aka “the sugar crash”). This can induce brain fog, inattention, and sluggishness; all of which can impact productivity.

This “spike and crash” pattern doesn’t happen only when we eat sweet foods or drinks like candy, soda, and cookies.

Foods that are high in carbs and low in fat, fibre, and protein will also cause blood sugar spikes and crashes.

Although they may not taste sweet, things like white bread, pasta, rice, grapes, potatoes, pretzels, and corn can lead to blood sugar spikes and crashes when eaten on their own.

The Solution: Smart Food Pairing 

The easiest way to avoid sugar spikes and crashes without being overly restrictive with your diet is by pairing High-Carb (or high-sugar) foods with Protein or Fat.

When enjoying a sweet treat like a candy bar or piece of cake, try to pair it with a meal. Watch out for high-sugar drinks in chains like Starbucks – they often contain far more sugar than candy or even soda and people tend to drink them between meals.

Pairing ideas

Here are some pairing ideas that combine higher-carb foods with a balancing protein or fat:

  • Crackers and cheese or hummus
  • Veggie sticks with hummus, guacamole, or olives
  • Apple or banana slices with peanut or almond butter
  • Raisins with sunflower seeds or peanuts
  • Avocado toast

Solo snack ideas

Simple, grab-and-go snack ideas that contain enough fat or protein to maintain stable blood sugar are also easy to incorporate into your daily routine. Some examples are:

  • Beef jerky (look for one with minimal ingredients like Chomps)
  • Coconut chips (aka coconut smiles)
  • Full-fat Greek yogurt (flavoured ones are ok if they have 2% or more milk fat)
  • Cheese slices/cubes (Babybel cheese is an easy, no-prep option)
  • Any type of nut or seed
  • Kind Bars (choose varieties with nuts in them)
  • Edamame (just boil and salt)
  • Protein balls – you can make them yourself with this recipe.

Other factors to consider

1. Hydration

If our bodies are dehydrated, they become less efficient at blood sugar control (along with everything else!). Avoiding dehydration will help your body handle sugar spikes more effectively so your concentration is less impacted.

How to tell if you’re dehydrated? 

Individual water needs vary greatly based on body size, activity level, climate, and diet. The easiest, and most reliable, way to tell if you need more water can be found in the bathroom. If your urine is dark yellow

If drinking water is a struggle for you, try caffeine-free teas, mineral water, or fruit-infused water. Even flavoured mineral water can be a good option when it doesn’t contain sugar, sweeteners, or chemical flavours. Perrier makes a good option that only contains water, CO2 (for bubbles), and natural flavour.

2. Stress & Sleep

Stress and sleep deprivation can both impact your body’s blood sugar regulation. If you feel like your stress levels or sleep deprivation are impacting your day-to-day life, contact a physician and/or mental health professional who can help.

Final Thoughts

Nutrition is complex and can have a significant impact on our focus, energy levels, and mental clarity. Taking simple steps that can easily fit into your life without overwhelming can be one of many powerful tools in your ADHD toolbox.

You are capable of improving how you fuel your brain without going “all-in” and burning out. Learning to pair foods for blood sugar balance is a great first step on your journey toward better brain health.

Want to learn more about ADHD and nutrition? Click here to access our livecast where we unpack topics like eating patterns that you may not even realise are characteristic of ADHD!

About the author:

Shawna Hughes, BSc., is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist specialising in ADHD and picky eating.
Her coaching programs include diet, supplements, and lifestyle changes that are catered to your individual family and are presented in an easy-to-follow, step-by-step method that builds up over time for sustainable changes that don’t overwhelm.

Check out her coaching programmes here!