What to Eat When You Have ADHD

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Despite often-circulated misconceptions, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is not caused by—or cured by—any specific foods. But diet can play a role in the health of people with ADHD. People with ADHD can have nutritional deficiencies or intolerances to foods that may affect their ADHD symptoms.

This article will discuss how best to 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 health overall.

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How Diet Affects ADHD

There isn't sufficient evidence to show conclusively that ADHD is directly affected by diet. Everyone, whether or not they have ADHD, benefits from healthy eating habits. Beyond that, research varies on the role of diet in the symptoms and treatment of ADHD.

That said, correlations between diet and ADHD have been made in some studies.

Deficiencies

Some research has found higher incidences of nutritional deficiencies in people with ADHD, particularly of:

  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Zinc
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Vitamins B2, B6, and B9

These deficiencies may result in symptoms that are similar to or heighten the symptoms of ADHD.

Sensitivities

Some research suggests that food allergies, which cause an immune system response, and sensitivities or intolerances, which are unpleasant but not an immune response, are associated with increased ADHD symptoms.

Some foods studied as possible sources of these sensitivities are:

  • Milk and other dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Gluten (protein found in wheat, barley, and rye)
  • Artificial colorings
  • Benzoate preservatives
  • Chocolate
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Corn
  • Legumes (such as lentils, peas, and beans)
  • Grapes
  • Tomatoes
  • Oranges

Are Certain Foods "Bad" for People With ADHD?

Specific foods are not considered "bad" on their own, even for people with ADHD. If someone has an intolerance or allergy to a food, they should avoid that food, even if they don't have ADHD.

Evidence is inconclusive about whether eliminating any single food relieves ADHD symptoms.

When elimination of a food is suggested, it tends to be indicated for people who are sensitive to it, not for people with ADHD in general.

Overall Nutrition

Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, fresh foods, and a variety of healthy options 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 is weak to support a direct link between diet and the increase or decrease in ADHD symptoms. But a healthy diet can improve overall health and reduce the likelihood of deficiencies, which in turn can help with ADHD.

ADHD can affect a person's ability to make and maintain healthy dietary habits. People with ADHD can have trouble with the steps involved in making a healthy meal at home, including:

  • Meal planning
  • Preparation
  • Time management
  • Decision-making
  • Following multiple steps

This can lead to eating convenience meals (such as premade, processed foods) or eating out more often.

ADHD medications can also affect diet. Stimulant medications can reduce appetite. When taking these medications in the morning, a person may not be hungry for lunch and may skip eating.

What to Eat

For most people with ADHD, eating healthy looks the same as it does for anyone else. For people with ADHD who have deficiencies or sensitivities, eating patterns might look a little different.

Eating With Deficiencies

See your healthcare professional to determine if you or your child has any vitamin or mineral deficiencies. If a deficiency is found, your healthcare professional may suggest taking a supplement.

While you shouldn't take supplements without the approval of your healthcare professional, there are foods you can eat that are high in the vitamins and minerals that are often found in low levels in people with ADHD.

Good sources of iron are:

  • Lean meat
  • Seafood
  • Poultry
  • Iron-fortified breakfast cereals and breads
  • White beans
  • Lentils
  • Spinach
  • Kidney beans
  • Peas
  • Nuts
  • Some dried fruits (such as raisins)

Good sources of magnesium are:

  • Legumes
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Green leafy vegetables (such as spinach)
  • Fortified breakfast cereals and other fortified foods
  • Milk, yogurt, and some other milk products

Good sources of zinc are:

  • Oysters (the best source of zinc)
  • Red meat
  • Poultry
  • Seafood such as crab and lobsters
  • Fortified breakfast cereals

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 plant oils (such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils) and some other foods of plant origin (such as chia seeds and black walnuts) contain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Most of the research on omega-3s and ADHD focuses on EPA and DHA.

Does 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 sugar in excess is healthy. Sugary foods can cause a rapid rise in blood sugars. This can influence your mood and your ability to focus and concentrate, and it can cause energy highs and lows. Regularly eating sugary foods can also cause you to eat less of the foods your body needs to be healthy.

So, while sugar does not cause ADHD or hyperactivity, as many people think it does, it can still affect your overall health and influence some ADHD symptoms. Sugary foods are best enjoyed in moderation.

Eating With Sensitivities

While tests can be conducted to determine allergies, sensitivities and intolerances are harder to predict.

There are several ways to determine if you or your child are sensitive to certain foods or food additives, including:

  • Keep a diary: Look for patterns between symptoms and foods. This won't give conclusive results but may provide a place to start.
  • Single-food elimination diet: This diet eliminates foods suspected of causing an intolerance, such as eggs, one at a time.
  • Multifood-elimination diet: An example is the six-food elimination diet, which eliminates the most common food allergens (cow's milk, soy, wheat, eggs, peanuts, and seafood).
  • Few-foods diet (oligoantigenic diet): This restricts a person's diet to only a few uncommonly consumed foods (such as lamb, venison, quinoa, rice, pear, and others with low allergenic potential). This diet must be supervised by a qualified professional, such as a dietitian. to avoid nutritional deficiency.

All elimination diets use a two-step process, such as:

  1. The diet is followed for a period of time.
  2. If symptoms improve, foods or food additives are slowly reintroduced one at a time to see if symptoms return and to determine which food is likely responsible for the symptoms.

The length of time this takes depends on how many foods were eliminated and need to be reintroduced. A single-food elimination will take much less time than the few-foods diet, in which many foods need to be slowly reintroduced.

The results of these tests are usually observational. They rely on noticing if and when symptoms improve and return.

Some studies suggest that strict elimination diets such as the few-foods diet are promising for treating ADHD symptoms, particularly for those who have not seen results with medication or cannot take these drugs.

Other studies question the efficacy, safety, and practicality of strict elimination diets for children.

Always consult with your healthcare professional before beginning or placing your child on a restricted diet.

Foods More Likely to Be a Cause of Allergy or Sensitivity
  • Milk and other dairy products

  • Eggs

  • Gluten

  • Artificial coloring

  • Benzoate preservatives

  • Chocolate

  • Soy

  • Wheat

  • Corn

  • Legumes

  • Grapes

  • Tomatoes

  • Oranges

Foods Less Likely to Be a Cause of Allergy or Sensitivity
  • Rice

  • Turkey

  • Venison (deer meat)

  • Cabbage

  • Beet

  • Cauliflower

  • Borecole (a form of kale)

  • Rutabaga

  • Sprouts

  • Lettuce

  • Pear

  • Olive oil

  • Quinoa

Cooking and Nutrition Tips

Some general tips for getting the most out of your meals for people with ADHD are:

  • Include protein in your major meals: This helps regulate blood sugar levels, which can indirectly help influence your ability to focus and concentrate.
  • Monitor general health, weight, and height (in children) when they are taking stimulants: Under your healthcare professional's guidance, make sure the loss of appetite that can occur with medications for ADHD is not affecting health, nutrition, or growth.
  • Try "mechanical eating," if necessary: Rather than relying on hunger cues at lunchtime, if stimulants are causing a lack of appetite, plan and eat a regular meal, even if you aren't hungry.
  • Meal plan using a menu rotation: Plan your meals for a certain period (such as three weeks' worth of breakfast, lunch, and dinner), then repeat those menus over and over, rotating each week. This allows you to plan once, then forget about meal planning for months.
  • Choose simple but nutritious meal options: Look for recipes designed for people with ADHD, such as the Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder’s (CHADD) "Cookbook For Busy Minds."

Do Food Dyes Really Cause ADHD?

Some research suggests that artificial food dyes may cause behavioral changes in children with or without ADHD, but these studies often contain flaws and are not conclusive.

In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that color additives did not cause hyperactivity in children in the general

population but may (along with other substances in food) heighten symptoms in certain susceptible children with ADHD.

More research is needed into the potential relationship between artificial food dyes and ADHD symptoms.

If you notice that certain food dyes or additives negatively affect you or your child, a single-food elimination diet may give you some insight.

Considerations

Following a general guide for healthy eating such as the Department of Health and Human Service's Dietary Guidelines for Americans is a good overall practice for everyone, including people with ADHD.

Deficiencies

If you suspect you or your child may have a deficiency that requires a more specific diet plan or, possibly, supplements, check with your healthcare professional before making significant changes or starting supplements.

Supplements such as magnesium, zinc, and iron, can cause side effects, some of which can be severe in high doses. Iron, in particular, can be dangerous and even fatal to children if too much is ingested.

Sensitivities

Elimination diets can be time-consuming, difficult to follow, and hard to commit to—especially ones like the few-foods diet that involve a lot of restriction over a longer period. They may also risk nutritional deficiencies if certain foods are eliminated over a long period.

Before starting even a minor elimination diet, consult with your healthcare professional to make sure it is safe and recommended to do so. More restrictive elimination diets should be done in cooperation with a nutrition expert, such as a dietitian, to monitor health and safety.

Summary

No foods cause ADHD, and no foods will cure it. Still, nutrition is important for people with ADHD. As in people without ADHD, a person with ADHD may have nutritional deficiencies and food sensitivities that might contribute to ADHD symptoms. Also, ADHD may contribute to unhealthy eating patterns.

Always consult with your healthcare professional to correctly identify nutritional deficiencies, food allergies, and food sensitivities. They can advise you on better dietary patterns and whether supplements are needed. An elimination diet might be one test given to identify sensitivities.

A Word From Verywell

There are a lot of recommendations out there for what people with ADHD should and shouldn't eat, but none of the research is conclusive beyond the general nutrition recommendations for everyone, with ADHD or not.

If you feel you or your child has dietary needs that contribute to ADHD symptoms, such as a deficiency or a food sensitivity, see your healthcare professional to explore how to safely address these concerns.