Written by Dr. Valentina Quintana MD on
July 17, 2021
Written by Dr. Valentina Quintana MD on:

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

Do you suspect you or a loved one may suffer from ADHD?

If you’re looking for a way to manage ADHD symptoms, the best ADHD diet can help. It’s important to eat foods that are high in protein and low in sugar.

Eating healthy may help your adhd symptoms.

It is well known that nutrition affects our health at every level, and mental health is not an exception. Over the years, studies have shown that food may improve symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and adults. Hyperactivity, impulsivity, lack of attention, and mood swings are some examples.

If you are struggling with ADHD, or your child is, keep reading! because in this article you are about to find everything you need to know to take your brain, or your child’s, to the next level.

Can ADHD be Treated with Diet?

There is no scientific evidence showing that diet is the cause of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but if you are looking for ways to improve ADHD symptoms, a healthy diet is a great starting point. In particular unprocessed foods, as you’ll see why shortly.

Finding an adequate amount and combination of healthy foods is crucial for better control of the energy levels throughout the day. A diet with too much sugary foods and saturated fats can worsen adhd symptoms.

A balanced diet with foods, with high amounts of fruits and vegetables, is beneficial for hyperactivity, and other ADHD symptoms.

However, it is important to consider that foods are not a substitute for ADHD medications. If you are under medical treatment, do not make any changes without asking your doctor first.

What is an ADHD diet?

An ADHD diet is a food pattern that will help balance your brain function and manage symptoms. It includes natural and nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, whole grains, beans, and nuts. Some vitamin and mineral supplements or herbs can be taken as well. A ketogenic diet would be a good example of this.

On the other hand, an ADHD diet excludes all the foods and food additives that may trigger or worsen ADHD symptoms. This is valid for both ADHD symptoms and the adverse effects of medication. In this category, we find processed foods, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and additives.

But it is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Personal dietary preferences, along with food sensitivities and allergies should be always considered. Since these conditions may vary a lot, specific topics should be discussed with your healthcare provider.

ADHD and Protein 

Proteins are very important for brain health. When we eat protein-rich foods, our gut breaks them down into amino acids. Then, our brain takes these amino acids to make its chemical messengers or “neurotransmitters”.

Some of the popular neurotransmitters are dopamine, adrenalin, noradrenalin, serotonin, and GABA. These chemicals control our mood, attention, alertness, sleep, movement, and memory. They work at different levels throughout the day.

The ADHD expert, Dr. Vince Monastra, explains:

“Our body will tend to make “brain awakening” neurotransmitters from the foods that we eat in the morning and afternoon”. Then, “It increases the production of neurotransmitters that promote sleep in the early evening”.

Serotonin and Dopamine are implicated in many ADHD symptoms. Serotonin regulates mood, hunger, sleep, pain, and gut motility. Low serotonin levels have been linked to depressed mood, sleep disturbances, and poor memory. Dopamine, on the other hand, is more involved in hyperactivity symptoms.

Two amino acids, tryptophan and tyrosine, influence serotonin and dopamine. Our body can make tyrosine, but tryptophan is one of the 9 essential amino acids, which means that our body cannot make them, so they must be ingested in food.

Tryptophan is crucial for the production of serotonin.

Researchers have shown that there’s a link between low levels of serotonin and hyperactivity. And also, altered levels of dopamine and impulsive aggression symptoms.

From a metabolic point of view, including protein in every meal helps to prevent the mental decline that comes after. Since proteins stay longer in the gut, they slow down the absorption of carbohydrates, therefore, the blood sugar spikes.

All 9 essential amino acids-rich foods

  • Animal-based: meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy
  • Plant-based: soy, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat.

Note: if you don’t eat animal products, make sure to eat a wide variety of whole grains, legumes, and nuts every day, and you will have them all covered.

Tryptophan-rich foods:

  • Animal-based: milk, canned tuna, turkey and chicken, cheese
  • Plant-based: oats, nuts and seeds, bread, chocolate, and bananas.

Protein-rich foods

  • Animal-based: lean beef, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy.
  • Plant-based: beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, seeds, soy, and soy products.

ADHD and Complex Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for brain cells. However, not all of them will have the same effect. There are two types of carbs: simple and complex.

Simple carbohydrates are single molecules of glucose (sugar) that are broken down quickly in the gut. They come naturally in milk, fruit, and honey.

However, the western diet also includes several highly processed foods with refined simple sugars. Foods such as candy, table sugar, syrups, fruit juices, and soft drinks can rapidly trigger a sugar spike once in the bloodstream.

Some studies have identified adverse effects from a higher intake of refined sugars.

In children, high sugar consumption correlates with hyperactivity. In adults, it’s associated with inattention and impulsivity.

Other studies found that skipping breakfast or having sugary drinks instead, was bad for attention and memory.

The best option will always be to go for complex carbohydrates such as those found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.

Complex carbohydrates provide more nutrients than simple carbs. They contain more fiber and digest more slowly. They are more filling, so they should be included in every meal.

As for fruits, they have simple carbs, but since they also have high amounts of fiber, they are considered complex carbs as whole food. Fruit juices are not, because they have had the fiber removed.

Complex carbs sources:

  • Animal-based: none
  • Plant-based: all kinds of vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, whole grains, beans, and lentils.

ADHD and Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Fatty acids are essential to neural development and signaling. They affect the neurotransmitters in the brain and may affect a child’s ADHD symptoms, as well as mental focus, and cognitive function.

Omega-3 and omega-6 are two essential fatty acids that must be incorporated in the diet and stay in balance in the body for optimal health. Research has shown that a good ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 for brain functions is about 4.

Western diet cultures tend to have this ratio at around 15, which means 15 times more omega-6 than omega-3. This imbalance promotes poor sleep quality, memory loss, and difficulty learning. All these are conditions that are present in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Some studies show that omega-3 fatty acid levels are reduced in children with ADHD. In the same study, researchers found that supplementation with large doses of one type of omega-3 reduced ADHD symptoms.

If food isn’t enough to meet your requirements, consider supplementation. Make sure to read the label and find ultra-pure fish oil gel capsules, or an algae-based omega-3.

In the meantime, try to include a fair amount of omega-3 rich foods on your daily basis.

Omega-3 fatty acids-rich foods:

  • Animal-based: fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna
  • Plant-based: walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, and hemp seeds

ADHD and Zinc 

Zinc is a trace mineral that supports signaling in the brain. It regulates melatonin and dopamine, two very important neurotransmitters for  ADHD symptoms. Zinc has shown to improve oppositional behaviors in children. And to increase the effectiveness of methylphenidate.

Some investigations show that children with ADHD tend to have lower zinc concentrations. This could lead to hyperactivity and lack of concentration.

Consider checking out your serum levels of zinc to see if zinc supplementation is needed, and include a variety of zinc-rich foods in your diet.

Zinc-rich foods:

  • Animal-based: oysters, crab, beef and other red meats, turkey, pork, chicken, eggs.
  • Plant-based: pine nuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, pecans, brazil nuts, chickpeas, and soybeans.

ADHD and Iron 

The brain needs iron to make dopamine, a neurotransmitter implicated in motor control, motivation, and reward.

Iron deficiency symptoms are usually related to iron deficiency anemia. These are fatigue, palpitations, and rapid breathing. But long-term deficiency has been linked to other ADHD symptoms. Poor cognitive development and abnormal behavior patterns in children are common neurological effects.

This is important because studies have found that low ferritin levels -the protein that stores iron in the body,  are common in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Iron is present in many different foods, but there are two types, according to the source. Heme iron is present in animal products, and nonheme iron in plants. non-heme iron is less absorbed in the gut, so people who don’t eat meat should pay special attention to food sources and consider taking nutritional supplements.

Iron-rich foods:

  • Animal-based: beef, chicken liver, oysters, clams, tuna, mussels, fish.
  • Plant-based: tofu, quinoa, potatoes, spinach, swiss chard, beans, lentils, hazelnuts, cashews, and prunes.

Note: For better iron absorption try adding some Vitamin C sources, such as lemon juice, raw bell peppers, oranges, or strawberries. Also, avoid drinking coffee, black tea, and herbal tea at the same time, because they may interfere.

ADHD and Magnesium

Magnesium participates in more than 300 different functions in our body. It regulates nerve transmission and muscle contraction. The brain uses magnesium to regulate excitation and prevent neuronal damage.

Magnesium deficiency is linked to fatigue, poor concentration, nervousness, mood swings, and aggression. It also seems to play a role in depression, agitation, and anxiety symptoms. As with the other minerals, studies have concluded that children with ADHD have lower levels than those without ADHD. Therefore, the importance of eating high-magnesium foods and supplements if necessary.

Magnesium-rich foods:

  • Animal-based sources: mackerel, meat, poultry,
  • Plant-based sources: beans, chickpeas, brown rice, and fortified cereals. Green leafy vegetables, avocado, bananas, brazil nuts, cashews, almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds

ADHD and Vitamin D

The analysis of several studies has shown that children with ADHD have lower vitamin D levels. A deficiency of vitamin D results in an imbalance of neurotransmitters, which can exacerbate adhd symptoms. Symptoms of this imbalance are brain dysfunction, impulsing behavior, and mood swings.

Adding vitamin D supplementation to stimulant therapy may improve  in managing ADHD symptoms. These are inattentiveness in doing tasks and running excessively.

The production of vitamin D is stimulated by sunlight. To get enough amount of vitamin D in absence of supplementation, you must be exposed to sunlight. This is not always easy, since higher latitudes receive less sunlight during the winter months.

The average recommendation is 15 minutes of daily sun exposure on hands, arms, and face around noon.

Although if you check your vitamin D levels and you find yourself or your child with low numbers, talk to your doctor for the right supplement.

Vitamin D food sources

  • Animal-based: fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. Also milk and egg yolks.
  • Plant-based: fortified orange juice, fortified plant-based milk, fortified cereals. Mushrooms.

ADHD and B Vitamins

B vitamins play an important role in the formation of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine.

In a study conducted in 164 adults -half of them with ADHD, the ADHD group showed lower concentrations of B2, B6, and B9. These three vitamins are important for neurotransmitters and energy regulation. In this study, low levels of B2 and B6 were associated with higher severity of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms.

Another critical vitamin is B12. Symptoms of B12 deficiency include concentration problems and memory loss, and it has been linked to ADHD

In general, all B vitamin deficiencies are associated with depression. Since mood disorders are common conditions in ADHD children and adults, that should be considered.

B vitamin-rich foods:

  • Animal-based: red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy.
  • Plant-based: whole grains and legumes. Dark leafy vegetables, almonds, sunflower seeds, citrus fruits, avocados, and bananas.

ADHD and Phytochemicals

Phytochemicals are chemicals produced by plants. These are little compounds that interact with different systems within our body. There are many of them that you might have heard of, such as carotenoids, fiber, flavonoids, lignans, and resveratrol, to name a few.

Polyphenols, packed with antioxidants, are a type of chemical from plants. In the brain, polyphenols decrease inflammation and prevent aging. This is particularly important in ADHD symptoms.

One example is Pycnogenol, a herbal, polyphenol-rich extract with potent antioxidant properties. It has been shown to improve attention in children with ADHD. Another interesting compound is resveratrol. It has been linked to improved symptoms of ADHD when added to stimulant medication.

To have a high antioxidant diet, you should just include:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Green tea
  • Red grapes /red wine
  • Turmeric
  • Herbs and spices

What Foods Can Make ADHD Worse?

A “western” dietary pattern is characterized by higher intakes of saturated fat, refined sugars, and salt. But also, lower amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and folate. A study conducted on adolescents found that those who ate a western type diet had more inattentive ADHD diagnoses.

Highly processed foods, refined sugars, and additives are at the top of the list. That’s because research has suggested that some children with ADHD tend to have increased symptoms. Not all the studies are conclusive on this, though. But since these are not essential nutrients, considering the chance of improvement, limiting them might be worth the try.

Foods to Avoid in ADHD 

There are plenty of foods that have been shown to be harmful for ADHD children. Sugar is a notorious one, with strong evidence pointing to its negative effects on cognition and behavior.

High-Sugar Foods 

The relationship between sugar intake and ADHD is still controversial.

Some studies in children have found that a high intake of sugar is not associated with the onset of ADHD. Although, other studies suggest that long-term sugar intake might increase hyperactivity in adulthood. This also applies to neurocognitive deficits.

For many people, this is already enough to go and try a sugar-free diet and see for themselves how it affects them.

Aside from table sugar itself, there are other compounds related to it. Take note of the following list and get ready to start checking labels!

  • high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), corn syrup, malt syrup, rice syrup, maple syrup, agave syrup, and all the syrups.
  • dehydrated cane juice
  • dextrin, dextrose
  • fructose, lactose
  • maltodextrin
  • sucrose, maltose
  • molasses

High sugar foods:

  • beverages: drinks, cocktails, fruit juice, soda
  • snacks: cookies, pastries, ice cream, candy, pastries, cakes, cereal bars, bread
  • Sweeteners: brown sugar, raw sugar, caramel, cane sugar, coconut sugar, panela
  • Dressings: ketchup

Caffeine

Over the years studies have linked caffeine with increased attention and reduced fatigue. But, while some adults may benefit from caffeine within a certain dose range, experts do not recommend giving it to children. Kids may have greater side effects, such as sleep problems and a cycle between excess stimulation and withdrawal.

A study conducted on 302 adolescents showed that those with ADHD consumed more caffeine in the afternoon and evening. Compared to adolescents without ADHD, they also reported more sleep problems. Thus, It’s important to know that caffeine can be found mainly in coffee, tea, chocolate, soda, and energy drinks.

If you are considering taking caffeine and you are under stimulant treatment, talk to your doctor. A proper evaluation of the risks of increased side effects like heart palpitations or agitation is necessary.

Alcohol

Drinking alcohol is not a good idea at any age. People affected by ADHD show high levels of impulsivity, which can increase the risk of alcohol abuse.

According to a 2017 article, ADHD in children and adolescents may have an increased substance use in adulthood. Since tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs abuse is one of the most frequent mental disorders among adults, this must be prevented.

As for the symptoms, alcohol impairment could aggravate difficulty focus and impulsiveness.

This is a problem, especially if the person is under stimulant medication. Alcohol may increase side effects, such as sleep problems, anxiety, and drowsiness.

Tap Water

Several studies are suggesting that tap water may have high levels of manganese.

Manganese is a trace mineral, which means that our body needs very little of it.

However, a high intake can worsen ADHD symptoms, such as cognitive impairment and altered behavior.

A study conducted on 643,401 children in Denmark, found that exposure to high levels of manganese in tap water increased the risk of ADHD.

If you see black stains on your plumbing, shower, or toilet, consider testing your drinking water for manganese levels.

In that case, you could use a home drinking water treatment system, such as reverse osmosis, water softeners, and oxidizing filters.

Food Additives

Food additives include artificial food additives and artificial food coloring, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives, among others.

They can be used for various purposes. For example,

  • Colors: used to add or restore colors in a food
  • Artificial sweeteners: added to make foods and beverages sweet
  • Preservatives: added to prolong shelf-life
  • Antioxidants: added to protect certain foods from oxidation

There is no substantial evidence that these additives cause ADHD. But many studies suggest that eliminating them from the diet may help to decrease ADHD symptoms. In specific, elimination diets may be beneficial for children with ADHD with a history of adverse reactions to food.

Several studies show that artificial additives increase hyperactivity in children without ADHD. They also exacerbate hyperactivity in children with ADHD.

The first step in avoiding additives is to read food labels, cut back on fast food restaurants and other junk foods. Try cutting out on processed and packaged foods. After a while, you will find a wide variety of additive-free foods. The simplest way is to integrate more fresh items into your diet. Natural foods are usually less likely to contain additives. Some examples are organic fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and meats.

But countries differ which artificial food colors additives or food dyes they allow and inform in food labels.

The European Union (EU), for example, mandates that certain foods containing specific food color additives have a warning on the label. It should say that the color “may have a detrimental effect on activity and attention in children”. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only asks listing FDA-approved color additives.

Some additives you might want to stay away from, are:

Artificial colorings: 

  • Blue 1, or “Brilliant blue”
  • Red 40, or “Erythrosine”
  • Yellow 5, or “tartrazine”

Artificial flavorings: 

  • Synthetic vanilla
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)

Artificial sweeteners: 

  • Aspartame
  • Saccharin
  • Sucralose
  • Acesulfame-K

Preservatives: 

  • Sodium nitrite
  • Sodium benzoate
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • Tert-butyl hydroquinone (TBHQ)

There are plenty of additives more, but these are the most common. You will find them in highly processed foods, many of them with bright colors, sweet flavor, and soft texture.

Additive-rich foods: 

  • Canned goods
  • Fruit juice
  • Soft drinks
  • Soda
  • Hard candy
  • Chewing gums
  • Ice cream
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Gelatin powders
  • Cake mixes
  • Barbecue sauce and salad dressings

Foods that Cause Allergies

Food allergy is a response from the immune system that develops shortly after consuming a specific food. Even a trace amount of the allergen might cause symptoms such as digestive issues, rashes, or asthma. The severe version of a food allergy can cause life-threatening symptoms known as anaphylaxis.

It is important to understand that children with ADHD do not always have “food allergies” in the strictest medical sense. When these children are tested for food allergies, the results are frequently negative.

Food sensitivities or food intolerances, on the other hand, are not life-threatening. They trigger digestive tract symptoms because the body cannot properly break the food down. Lactose intolerance is an example, in which the gut can’t digest milk.

But evidence has also shown that food allergies and sensitivities can cause mental symptoms, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Slowed thinking
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • ADHD
  • Other mental disorders

The only way to determine whether you or your child has food sensitivities is to cut certain foods. Particular items from the normal diet that you suspect are affecting your symptoms, and then watch the reactions.

Common food allergies or sensitivities to consider, are:

  • Dairy
  • Gluten
  • Wheat
  • Corn
  • Soy
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Chocolate

Elimination Diet for ADHD

A restricted elimination diet involves leaving out those foods that might be triggering certain symptoms. This is not only for ADHD, but for many other health conditions, such as digestive issues, allergies, and autoimmune diseases.

A supervised elimination diet can be valuable to test children. Whether dietary factors have a beneficial effect on their behavior or not. In some studies, elimination diets have been shown to decrease symptoms of oppositional disorder.

Since every person responds differently to food, the elimination diet is not the same for everyone, nor should it be. It is a journey in which you have to pay attention to how you feel in terms of energy, attention, concentration, sleep, and mood.

Food items to test by an elimination diet

  • Refined sugar
  • Additives
  • Caffeine
  • Dairy
  • Gluten
  • Legumes

After 10 to 14 days, reincorporate those items one at a time and see if they affect your ADHD symptoms. Every 1 to 2 days add a different food and check: Does it lower your attention and focus? Does it make your child more hyperactive? Does it trigger digestive discomfort? If yes, then avoid it as much as you can, and if not, then you are fine!

How to Follow the ADHD Diet

After all this, you might be feeling overwhelmed, but it is not that hard. The best approach for better management of ADHD is to limit sugary and processed foods.

Eating fresh homemade meals is the best way to make sure you are including all the nutrients you need. It is also the safest option since you know exactly what’s on your plate.

Make a list of all fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and good quality meats you can eat, and make a meal plan for the week.

Consider fresh well-balanced meals as:

  • Half of the plate filled with colorful vegetables
  • One-fourth of the plate with protein of your choice
  • One-fourth of the plate with complex carbs of your choice
  • Add some healthy fats, such as avocado, nuts, seeds, and virgin olive oil
  • Have a glass of water

Consider snacking:

  • Green and herbal teas
  • Water with lemon or fruit slices
  • Chia pudding
  • Fresh fruits
  • Trail mix
  • Veggie sticks with guacamole or hummus

Enjoy!

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