The ADHD Diet: Tips and Advice
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental disorder that doctors most commonly seen in children who have trouble remembering details, concentrating, and staying organized.
It isn’t exclusively seen in children. More and more adults are being diagnosed with ADHD, and the total number of Americans being diagnosed with ADHD has skyrocketed by more than 40 percent in the past few years.
Why the sudden increase? More and more doctors, researchers and medical professionals are wondering if there’s a link between lifestyle factors — such as your diet — and ADHD.
Dietary and Lifestyle Risks and Triggers for ADHD
It’s important to note that ADHD is an incredibly complex disorder. There is currently no one-size-fits-all understanding of ADHD. However, as research on ADHD continues to grow and expand, scientists have identified potential causes of ADHD as well as triggers that may cause your ADHD symptoms to flare up.
Potential causes of ADHD include:
- According to the National Institutes of Health and The National Human Genome Research Institute, people with ADHD often have a close blood relative who also has the disorder. Scientists now think there are two specific genes linked with ADHD.
- Physical problems: Abnormal brain development and brain injury have been linked to the development of ADHD.
- Chemical toxins: New research suggests that your ADHD risks go up if you're exposed to common chemical toxins found in everyday life. This includes plastics, cleaning products, and personal-care products, which may affect brain functioning and brain development.
Once you’re diagnosed with ADHD, various lifestyle triggers can make your ADHD symptoms worse:
- Stress: Stress can trigger an ADHD episode, and just like it does with people who don't have ADHD, it can make it harder for you to focus and think (making ADHD worse).
- Lack of sleep: Poor sleep quality, or not getting enough rest, can negatively affect your comprehension skills, mental performance, and concentration.
- Food and additives: While diet can't "cure" ADHD, certain ingredients and foods have been shown to improve ADHD or worsen ADHD symptoms.
The latter bullet point is key if you or someone you know is journeying through life with ADHD, as dietary changes are something that every single one of us is empowered to take control of and change for the better.
Take back your life from the difficulties of ADHD by exploring how your day-to-day nutrition can improve your mental well-being and help you in managing and controlling your ADHD symptoms.
The Best Foods and Diets for Adults and Children with ADHD
Because the underlying scientific principles are the same, there are no foods for a specific age range when it comes to ADHD benefits. However, many parents and medical professionals start to notice the pros and cons of particular foods at an early age.
Dr. Natasha Montroy in British Columbia, Canada, says that the very first thing she does is start young boys on a whole foods diet that cuts out processed foods, dairy protein, chemical food dyes, and gluten. "They've been found to aggravate many of these conditions," she says in an interview with Alive health magazine.
She says that as soon as she does this, her patients often see immediate results. Here’s what the science has to say about the best foods to try, and the major foods and ingredients to avoid, if you have ADHD or if you’re caring for a child who has the disorder.
Start by Eating a Whole Foods Diet
According to research published in the Nature Reviews Neuroscience medical journal, the food you eat on a day-to-day basis has a direct effect on your brain, your emotions and how you think. That's because specific nutrients may influence brain hormones, affect your nervous system, and even have an impact on mental function.
“Think about it: Your brain is always ‘on,’” notes Dr. Eva Selhub in her column for Harvard Medical School. “This means your brain requires a constant supply of fuel. That ‘fuel’ comes from the foods you eat — and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.”
For optimal brain health, Harvard recommends that you move to a whole-foods, clean diet that focuses on lean proteins and plant-based meals, noting research that suggests it can reduce the risks of various disorders by more than a third.
- More fruits
- More vegetables
- More whole grains
- Less refined grains
- Less meat, unless it’s fish
- No processed foods
In other words, aim to eat food that is as close to the original form that you would find it out in nature.
Find Ways to Manage Your Blood Sugar
Some studies suggest that increased levels of blood sugar may be linked to increased hyperactivity.
You or your child’s diet have obvious implications on blood sugar. Start by reducing or even eliminating dietary sugar, which can help not just with ADHD symptoms, but also your risks of diabetes, heart disease, and many other chronic illnesses.
Watch out for sneaky ways that sugar masquerades as something else on ingredient labels, such as “evaporated cane juice.” Consider cutting sugar entirely and seeing if that improves how you or your family feels.
It’s also important to eat fiber with every meal. Fiber helps moderate your blood sugar levels, and unfortunately, most people do not get enough fiber on a daily basis.
The average child gets less than 50 percent of the fiber they should be getting. The amount of fiber your child with ADHD needs varies by age and gender:
- Children 1-3 years: 19 grams of fiber per day
- Children 4-8 years: 25 grams/day
- Boys 9-13 years: 31 grams/day
- Girls 9-13 years: 26 grams/day
- Boys 14-19: 38 grams/day
- Girls 14-19: 26 grams/day
When it comes to adults with ADHD, you should be getting 38 grams/day if you're a man and 25 grams daily if you're a woman. Alas, the average person only eats 15 grams a day.
Not only will boosting your fiber intake positively impact your blood sugar, and thus potentially your ADHD symptoms, but it can also improve your digestion and overall health.
Enjoy Healthy Fats
In one study, eating omega-3 fatty acids reduced ADHD symptoms by a whopping 50 percent. The study took six months and followed a group of children and teenagers who took fish oil every day.
Other studies have linked omega-3 fatty acids with improved mental health, happier moods, more regulated emotions and enhanced general well-being and brain functioning.
Some of the best foods to increase your omega-3 intake include salmon, tuna, and other fatty fish. If you eat a plant-based diet, vegan-friendly sources include ground flaxseed, tofu, walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseed oil.
Don’t Forget Essential Minerals
Zinc, iron, and magnesium are critical when it comes to mood disorders and brain health. Each mineral plays a role in how your brain functions and more than a hundred studies have looked at how these minerals affect people with ADHD.
For example, researchers have found that zinc deficiency is linked to hyperactivity and that children with ADHD tend to have lower levels of both iron and magnesium. This is important because the minerals affect the production of various neurotransmitters that your brain needs to communicate properly.
For children, some of the best ways to increase their intake of these minerals are through fortified cereals. For yourself, you can find all three essential minerals in foods like nuts and seafood.
Foods and Ingredients to Avoid if You Have ADHD
Besides many of the food groups and ingredients listed above (i.e., processed foods, sugar and refined grains), there are also additional specific ingredients you may wish to skip if you’re worried about the link between ADHD and diet choices.
The first is food additives, such as preservatives and artificial dyes. Numerous studies suggest these ingredients can trigger stronger ADHD symptoms in you or your child. If you want to skip these synthetic ingredients, try:
- Going organic. If it bears the green-and-white certified organic sticker, it can't contain artificial dyes.
- Avoiding numbered names. Names like "Red 40" or "Blue 2" on an ingredients label means it's dyed.
- Looking for natural, food-based alternatives. For example, some manufacturers use natural ingredients like paprika or beets to naturally give color to food.
The next food group to skip if you don’t want your diet to trigger ADHD symptoms is any foods or ingredients to which you or your family are sensitive or allergic to. For some, food allergies or sensitivities can provoke symptoms that make your ADHD worse, such as hyperactivity or inability to focus.
Some of the most common food allergies include:
- Dairy (milk and eggs)
- Tree nuts
- Wheat and other gluten-rich grains
Is Diet the Answer to ADHD?
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” said Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine.
Because nutrition has such a profound effect on brain function, cognition and mood, researchers don’t doubt that there’s a link between what you eat and how you think. This includes the risk factors and symptoms of ADHD!
However, as with any neurological disorder, every single situation and circumstance is complex and different. Before you try to self-treat your ADHD with Hippocrates’ famous advice, talk to a medical professional, such as your doctor and a registered dietitian.
Your medical professional can look at your specific circumstances, help you analyze your diet, and give you personalized ADHD diet tips and food suggestion to help you feel healthier, think clearer and with more focus, and feel less enslaved to the confusion and fogginess that comes with ADHD.