Despite a common misconception, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is not caused or cured by any particular food. But diet can play a role in the health of people with ADHD. People with ADHD may have nutritional deficiencies or intolerances to foods that can affect their ADHD symptoms.
This article will discuss how to best manage your eating habits if you have ADHD. Learn more about ways to address nutritional deficiencies and food sensitivities that can affect ADHD symptoms, and how to eat for overall health.
How Diet Affects ADHD
There is insufficient evidence that ADHD is directly affected by diet. Everyone, whether they have ADHD or not, benefits from healthy eating habits. Beyond that, research on the role of diet in ADHD symptoms and treatment varies.
That said, several studies have established a correlation between diet and ADHD.
Some studies have found higher rates of nutritional deficiencies in people with ADHD, especially:
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Vitamins B2, B6 and B9
These deficiencies can lead to symptoms that are similar to or worse than those of ADHD.
Some studies have shown that food allergies that trigger an immune system response, as well as sensitivities or intolerances that are unpleasant but not immune responses, are associated with increased symptoms of ADHD.
Some of the foods that have been studied as possible sources of these sensitivities are:
- Milk and other dairy products
- Gluten (protein found in wheat, barley, and rye)
- Artificial colorings
- Benzoate Preservatives
- Legumes (such as lentils, peas, and beans)
Are certain foods ‘bad’ for people with ADHD?
Certain foods are not considered “bad” by themselves, even for people with ADHD. If someone has an intolerance or allergy to a certain food, they should avoid that food, even if they don’t have ADHD.
The evidence is inconclusive as to whether eliminating any single food can relieve ADHD symptoms.
When eliminating a food is recommended, it tends to apply to people who are sensitive to it, not ADHD in general.
A diet high in fruits and vegetables, fresh foods, and a variety of healthy choices, but low in processed foods, sugar, and salt, is important for everyone, whether they have ADHD or not. A balance between carbohydrates, protein, and fat is also necessary for optimal nutrition.
Evidence to support a direct link between diet and increased or decreased symptoms of ADHD is insufficient. But a healthy diet can improve overall health and reduce the likelihood of a deficiency, which in turn can help treat ADHD.
ADHD affects a person’s ability to develop and maintain healthy eating habits. People with ADHD may struggle with steps to make healthy meals at home, including:
- meal plan
- time management
- make a decision
- follow multiple steps
This can lead to eating convenience meals (such as prepared and processed foods) or eating out more frequently.
ADHD medications can also affect diet. Stimulant drugs can reduce appetite. When taking these drugs in the morning, a person may not go hungry for lunch and may not eat.
what to eat
For most people with ADHD, healthy eating looks like everyone else. For people with ADHD who are deficient or sensitive, eating patterns may look a little different.
Consult your healthcare professional to determine if you or your child have any vitamin or mineral deficiencies. If deficiencies are found, your healthcare professional may recommend taking supplements.
While you shouldn’t take supplements without your healthcare professional’s approval, you can eat foods rich in vitamins and minerals that are often low in people with ADHD.
Good sources of iron are:
- lean meat
- Iron-fortified breakfast cereals and breads
- white beans
- kidney beans
- some dried fruit (such as raisins)
Good sources of magnesium are:
- whole grains
- leafy green vegetables (such as spinach)
- Fortified breakfast cereals and other fortified foods
- milk, yogurt, and some other dairy products
Good sources of zinc are:
- Oysters (best source of zinc)
- red meat
- Seafood such as crab and lobster
- fortified breakfast cereal
Beans, nuts, whole grains, and dairy products also provide some zinc.
Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are:
- Fish and shellfish: These foods provide EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
- Certain vegetable oils (such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola) and some other plant-derived foods (such as chia seeds and black walnuts) contain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Most research on omega-3s and ADHD has focused on EPA and DHA.
Can sugar cause ADHD?
Sugar does not cause ADHD. Research doesn’t even show that it causes hyperactivity in children with or without ADHD.
That doesn’t mean eating too much sugar is healthy. Sugary foods can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar. This can affect your mood and your ability to focus and can cause energy highs and lows. Eating sugary foods regularly can also cause you to eat less of the foods you need for good health.
So while sugar doesn’t cause ADHD or ADHD as many believe, it can still affect your overall health and affect some ADHD symptoms. Sugary foods are best enjoyed in moderation.
While tests can be done to identify allergies, sensitivities and intolerances are harder to predict.
There are several ways to determine if you or your child is sensitive to certain foods or food additives, including:
- Journaling: Look for patterns between symptoms and food. This will not give conclusive results, but may provide a place to start.
- Single-food elimination diet: This diet eliminates foods suspected of causing intolerance, such as eggs, one at a time.
- A multi-food elimination diet: For example, a six-food elimination diet eliminates the most common food allergens (milk, soy, wheat, eggs, peanuts, and seafood).
- A low-eating diet (oligoantigen diet): This restricts a person’s diet to a few uncommon foods (such as lamb, venison, quinoa, rice, pears, and other hypoallergenic foods). This diet must be supervised by a qualified professional, such as a nutritionist. to avoid nutritional deficiencies.
All elimination diets use a two-step process, such as:
- The diet is followed for a period of time.
- If symptoms improve, slowly reintroduce one food or food additive at a time to see if symptoms recur and determine which foods may be causing them.
The length of time this takes depends on how much food is eliminated and needs to be reintroduced. Eliminating single foods takes much less time than a reduced-eating diet, many of which need to be slowly reintroduced.
The results of these tests are usually observational. They rely on noticing if and when symptoms improve and recover.
Several studies have shown that strict elimination diets (such as a low-eating diet) hold promise for treating ADHD symptoms, especially for people who don’t see an effect from their medications or who can’t take them.
Other studies have questioned the efficacy, safety, and practicality of strict elimination diets for children.
Always consult your healthcare professional before starting or restricting your child’s diet.
Foods that are more likely to cause allergies or sensitivities
Milk and other dairy products
Foods that are less likely to cause allergies or sensitivities
Borecole (a type of kale)
Cooking and Nutrition Tips
Some general tips for getting the most out of meals for people with ADHD are:
- Include protein in your main meals: This helps regulate blood sugar levels, which indirectly helps affect your ability to focus.
- Monitor general health, weight, and height (children) while taking stimulants: Under the direction of your healthcare professional, ensure that loss of appetite that may result from taking ADHD medication does not affect health, nutrition, or growth.
- If necessary, try “mechanical eating”: If stimulants are causing a loss of appetite, don’t rely on hunger signals at lunchtime, but plan and eat regularly, even if you’re not hungry.
- Meal Planning Using Menu Rotation: Plan meals over a period of time (such as breakfast, lunch, and dinner for three weeks), then repeat those menus over and over, rotating weekly. This allows you to plan once and forget about meal planning for months.
- Choose simple but nutritious meal options: Look for recipes designed for people with ADHD, such as the Busy Mind Cookbook for Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD).
Can food dye really cause ADHD?
Some studies have suggested that artificial food dyes may cause behavioral changes in children with and without ADHD, but these studies are often flawed and inconclusive.
In 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that color additives generally do not cause hyperactivity in children.
population, but may (along with other substances in food) exacerbate symptoms in some ADHD-prone children.
More research is needed on the potential relationship between artificial food dyes and ADHD symptoms.
If you’ve noticed that certain food dyes or additives are negatively affecting you or your child, a single-food elimination diet may give you an idea.
Following general guidelines for healthy eating, such as the Department of Health and Human Services’ Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is a good overall practice for everyone, including those with ADHD.
If you suspect that you or your child may have a deficiency that requires a more specific dietary plan or supplement, please consult your healthcare professional before making major changes or starting supplements.
supplements such as magnesium, zinc, and iron, Side effects may occur, some of which may be serious in high doses. Iron, in particular, can be dangerous and even fatal to children if ingested in excess.
Elimination diets can be time-consuming, difficult to follow, and difficult to commit to—especially a diet like a low-eating diet, which is very restrictive over longer periods of time. They may also be at risk of nutritional deficiencies if certain foods are not eaten for a long period of time.
Before starting a small elimination diet, talk to your healthcare professional to make sure it’s safe and recommended. A stricter elimination diet should be instituted in collaboration with a nutrition professional, such as a dietitian, to monitor health and safety.
No food can cause ADHD and no food can cure it. Still, nutrition is important for people with ADHD. Like people without ADHD, people with ADHD may have nutritional deficiencies and food sensitivities that can contribute to ADHD symptoms. Additionally, ADHD can lead to unhealthy eating patterns.
Be sure to consult your healthcare professional to properly identify nutritional deficiencies, food allergies, and food sensitivities. They can advise you on better dietary patterns and whether you need supplements. An elimination diet may be a test to determine sensitivity.
There are plenty of recommendations for what people with ADHD should and shouldn’t eat, but aside from general nutrition advice for everyone, no study is conclusive, with or without ADHD.
If you feel that you or your child have dietary needs that are causing ADHD symptoms, such as deficiencies or food sensitivities, talk with your healthcare professional to explore how to address these issues safely.