ADHD is a brain disorder caused by faulty connections between nerve cells that regulate attention. There is no clear scientific evidence that it is caused by diet or nutritional problems. However, research suggests that certain food products may play at least some role in affecting ADHD symptoms in a subgroup of patients. So are there foods your child should eat or avoid? This article answers questions about ADHD diets, including elimination diets, supplements, and foods that may help improve ADHD symptoms.
What Is an ADHD diet?
Ideally, an ADHD diet would help the brain work better and lessen symptoms of the disorder, such as restlessness or lack of focus. A diet may include the foods you eat and any nutritional supplements you may take. You may hear ADHD diets described in the following ways:
Overall nutrition for ADHD: This includes the food you eat daily. How can your overall nutrition help or hurt ADHD? The assumption is that some foods you eat may make ADHD symptoms better or worse. You may also be lacking some foods that could help make symptoms better.
Supplementation diets for ADHD: This includes adding vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients to make up for deficiencies in your diet that may contribute to ADHD symptoms. The assumption is that nutritional component that your body needs is lacking from your diet.
Elimination diets for ADHD: This involves removing foods or ingredients that are suspected of contributing to ADHD symptoms. The assumption is that you are eating something unhealthy that triggers certain behaviors or makes them worse.
Overall Nutrition and ADHD
Scientific research on ADHD diets is limited and results are mixed. Many health experts, however, do believe that diet may play a role in relieving ADHD symptoms. ADHD expert Richard Sogn, MD, points out that whatever is good for the brain is likely to be good for ADHD.
- Eat a high-protein diet, including beans, cheese, eggs, meat, and nuts. Add protein foods in the morning and for after-school snacks, to improve concentration and possibly increase the time ADHD medications work.
- Eat fewer simple carbohydrates, such as candy, corn syrup, honey, sugar, products made from white flour, white rice, and potatoes without the skins.
- Eat more complex carbohydrates, such as vegetables and some fruits (including oranges, tangerines, pears, grapefruit, apples, and kiwi). Eating complex carbs at night may aid sleep.
- Eat more omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in tuna, salmon, other cold-water white fish, walnuts, Brazil nuts, and olive and canola oil. Omega-3 fatty acids are also available in supplement form.
Nutritional Supplements and ADHD
Some experts recommend that people with ADHD take a 100% vitamin and mineral supplement each day. Other nutrition experts, however, believe that vitamin or micronutrient supplements are not necessary in people who eat a normal, balanced diet, and point out that there is no scientific evidence that vitamin or mineral supplements help all children with ADHD. While a multivitamin may be OK when children, teens, and adults don't eat balanced diets, mega-doses of vitamins can be toxic and should be avoided.
ADHD symptoms vary from person to person. Work with your doctor closely before considering any additional supplements.
Elimination Diets and ADHD
In elimination diets, you identify a particular food or ingredient you think might be contributing to or worsening ADHD symptoms. Then you stop eating anything containing that substance. If the symptoms lessen or subside, then you continue avoiding the substance.
Can eliminating foods from your diet improve ADHD symptoms? Research in all these areas is ongoing and results are not clear-cut, although most scientists do not advocate this as a mainstream approach to managing ADHD. Nonetheless, here are some common areas of concern and what the experts recommend:
Food allergies or additives
Starting in 1975, the late Benjamin Feingold, MD, an allergist, proposed that artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives might lead to hyperactivity in some children. Since his initial theory, researchers and child behavior experts have hotly debated this issue, with some viewing his original radical dietary restrictions as unfounded and unsupported by scientific evidence . A recent study showed that some food coloring and one preservative did increase hyperactivity in some children. However, effects varied according to age and additive.
Based on this and other recent studies, the American Academy of Pediatrics now agrees that eliminating preservatives and food colorings from the diet is a reasonable option for children with ADHD. Some experts recommend that people with ADHD avoid these substances:
- Artificial colors, especially red and yellow
- Food additives such as aspartame, MSG (monosodium glutamate), and nitrites; some studies have linked hyperactivity to the intake of the preservative sodium benzoate.
Sugar and ADHD
Some children do become hyperactive after eating candy or other sugary foods. No evidence indicates, however, that this is a cause of ADHD. For best overall nutrition, sugary foods should be a small part of anyone's diet, though there is probably not much harm for a child or adult with ADHD to try eliminating sugary foods to see if symptoms improve.
Caffeine and ADHD
Some studies have shown that small amounts of caffeine may help with some ADHD symptoms in children. However, the side effects of caffeine may outweigh any potential benefit. Most ADHD experts recommend minimizing or avoiding caffeine.
WebMD Medical Reference
Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on May 10, 2014
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