Diet plan for adhd is essential to living with attention deficit disorder. While so many conflicting approaches and diets exist, a simple review of the adhd diet plan and a few tweaks can set you on the right path.
What is ADHD?
People with ADHD have difficulty focusing on tasks and controlling their attention, which can make completing a project, for example, challenging. ADHD can limit a person’s ability to study or work, and it can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression.
Some people with ADHD also find it hard to sit still. They may be quick to act on impulse and become easily distracted.
While children of any age can experience distraction and impulsiveness, these traits are more noticeable in those with ADHD.
ADHD may develop in one of three ways. A doctor may find that the disorder has:
- a predominantly hyperactive and impulsive presentation
- a predominantly inattentive presentation
- a combined presentation
People with ADHD experience hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention in varying degrees.
Below are some behaviors related to inattention that a person might notice in someone with ADHD:
- becoming distracted and having difficulty focusing on tasks
- making “careless” mistakes
- appearing to not listen while others are talking
- having difficulty with time management and organization
- frequently losing everyday items
- avoiding tasks that need prolonged focus and thought
- having difficulty following instructions
Hyperactivity and impulsivity
Some or all of the following may be apparent in someone with ADHD:
- seeming constantly “on-the-go” and unable to sit still
- running or climbing at inappropriate times
- having difficulty taking turns in conversations and activities
- fidgeting or tapping the hands or feet
- talking and making noises excessively
- taking unnecessary risks
Adults and children tend to experience the same symptoms of ADHD, and these can create difficulties in relationships and at work.
The effects of these features vary widely from person to person, and a person may find that their experience of ADHD changes over time.
Not everyone with ADHD is noisy and disruptive. A child may be quiet in class, for example, while facing severe challenges that they do not express.
Females with ADHD may be more likely to have difficulty paying attention, while males may be more likely to experience hyperactivity and impulsivity.
This may be one reason why more males than females receive diagnoses of ADHD. Hyperactivity can be easier to spot than inattention.
Most children with ADHD receive a diagnosis while they are in elementary school, but some may not do so until adolescence or adulthood.
No single test can identify ADHD, and the symptoms can overlap with those of other conditions. This can make it difficult to diagnose.
A doctor will conduct examinations to rule out other potential causes, such as hearing or vision problems.
Other conditions that can lead to similar behaviors include:
- trouble hearing or seeing
- learning disabilities
- sleep disorders
A doctor will often ask questions to learn more about the person’s behavioral patterns. They may speak with the individual, members of their family, and any other caregivers, such as teachers.
Many children experience hyperactivity and inattention. For a diagnosis of ADHD, the symptoms must meet specific criteria, including having a significant impact on daily life and schoolwork.
Getting a correct diagnosis of ADHD can take time. Find out why.
A range of approaches can help a person manage ADHD. A doctor should work with the individual to develop a treatment plan that suits them best.
The plan may include:
Behavioral therapy and counseling
A therapist or counselor can help a person develop or enhance a wide range of skills, such as:
- building and maintaining relationships
- establishing and following rules
- planning and completing tasks
- developing and following a schedule
- monitoring ADHD symptoms
Therapists can also help parents develop constructive ways to respond to the behaviors that can result from ADHD.
A person with ADHD may specifically benefit from:
- stress management
- classroom behavior management techniques
- cognitive behavioral therapy
- family therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy, commonly called CBT, aims to help a person find new ways to approach and react to everyday situations.
Tips for supporting children
Parents, teachers, and other caregivers can help children navigate the challenges of ADHD.
Schools often have educational plans for children with ADHD, including specific teaching approaches, classroom accommodations, and school-based counseling.
At home and at school, the following strategies can help:
- having a written schedule of all tasks
- breaking down larger tasks into smaller, more manageable ones
- keeping school items and toys organized
- establishing clear and consistent rules
- rewarding or praising the child when they accomplish tasks
- using a planner that teachers and caregivers check regularly
Also, encourage children to engage in activities that they enjoy and do well in to boost their self-esteem. Sports and other forms of exercise can provide outlets for high energy levels and enhance the child’s overall well-being.
Tips for adults
Reminder notes and alarms, calendars, and planners can help adults with ADHD manage their schedules.
It is also a good idea to keep keys and other important everyday items in specific spots.
Medications, such as stimulants, can help improve attention and focus. Here are some examples:
- amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall)
- lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse)
- methylphenidate (Ritalin)
- dexamphetamine (Dexedrine)
However, they can have adverse effects, such as:
- abdominal pain
- raised blood pressure and heart rate
- increased anxiety and irritability
- sleep problems
- reduced appetite
- personality changes
To avoid side effects, let the doctor know about any ongoing medications and health issues.
If stimulants are ineffective or unsuitable, a doctor may prescribe nonstimulant medications, such as:
- guanfacine (Intuniv)
- atomoxetine (Strattera)
- clonidine (Catapres)
For some people, a doctor may prescribe one of the above alongside a stimulant.
What Is the Best ADHD Diet?
Health, food, and nutrition can make a significant difference in the lives of both children and adults who have been diagnosed with ADHD.
I have used nutritional interventions for hundreds of patients with ADHD during the past 24 years. In many cases, dietary changes have not only improved the symptoms of hyperactivity, concentration, and impulsivity, but also calmed.
Many adults and parents of children with ADHD are eager to try foods and supplements as part of an ADHD diet to help manage symptoms, but they often don’t know where to start. Below, learn how to find healthy food for kids and adults alike — foods to add to your family’s daily meals and things to eliminate — in order to deliver significant symptom relief.
ADHD Diet Rule 1: Stop Blood Sugar Spikes
Foods rich in protein — lean beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, soy, and low-fat dairy products — may have beneficial effects on ADD symptoms.
Protein-rich foods are used by the brain to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals released by brain cells to communicate with each other. Protein can prevent surges in blood sugar, which increases hyperactivity. Eating protein for breakfast will help the body produce brain-awakening neurotransmitters.
Combining protein with complex carbs that are high in fiber and low in sugar will help you or your child manage ADHD symptoms better during the day, whether you’re taking ADD medication or not. The single most important thing I recommend to patients — especially parents of children with ADHD — is to decrease the amount of sugar consumed daily.
What many people don’t know is that eating simple processed carbohydrates, like white bread or waffles, is almost the same as eating sugar! Your body digests these processed carbs into glucose (sugar) so quickly that the effect is virtually the same as eating sugar from a spoon.
A breakfast consisting of a Pop-Tart and a glass of juice, or a waffle with syrup, causes blood sugar to rise quickly. The body responds by producing insulin and other hormones that drive sugar down to too-low levels, causing the release of stress hormones. The result? By mid-morning, you and your child are hypoglycemic, irritable, and stressed out. This can worsen ADHD symptoms or make some children who don’t have ADHD act like they have the condition. Having a simple-carb, low-protein lunch will cause the same symptoms in the afternoon.
Instead, try breakfasts and lunches high in protein, complex carbs, and fiber — like oatmeal and a glass of milk, or peanut butter on a piece of whole grain bread. The sugars from these carbohydrates are digested more slowly, because protein, fiber, and fat eaten together result in a more gradual and sustained blood sugar release. The result? A child can concentrate and behave better at school, and an adult can make it through that long morning meeting.
ADHD Diet Rule 2: Go for the Fish Oil
Omega-3s can improve several aspects of ADHD behavior: hyperactivity, impulsivity and concentration. As a result, I recommend that all children with ADHD take omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3s are essential fats important for normal brain function. They are called “essential” fats because the body must get them from the foods we consume; our bodies cannot make them. Research suggests that children with ADHD have lower blood levels of omega-3’s than kids without ADHD. So, unless your child is a dedicated fish eater, you’ll have to supplement, usually with fish oil, to achieve healthy levels.
A number of studies on omega-3s and ADHD have shown a positive effect. In a 2009 study1, from Sweden, 25 percent of children who had daily doses of omega-3s had a significant decrease in symptoms after three months; by six months, almost 50 percent experienced better symptom management. This is an impressive result for a safe nutritional supplement with few side effects.
How much omega-3 should your child get and in what form? What is the best omega 3 supplement for me? It’s a little complicated. The two main omega-3 fatty acids contained in supplements are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). It appears that most benefits are derived from omega-3 products that contain more EPA than DHA. I recommend a total dose of 700 to 1,000 mg a day for younger children, and 1,500 to 2,000 mg for older children.
Omega-3s come in capsule, liquid, and chewable form. The gummies and chewables, unfortunately, don’t have much fish oil in them, so it is expensive and time-consuming to give your child the proper dose. Most kids who are too young to swallow capsules can take the liquid, although you’ll have to be creative about getting them to take it. It is OK to mix liquid omega-3s in just about anything. Orange juice and smoothies are a couple of favorites.
I’ve seen some children improve within a few days, while others didn’t show improvement for a few months. My advice to parents is always to be patient, and not to give up on an omega-3 regimen too soon.
ADHD Diet Rule 3: Maintain Iron Levels
Many parents and professionals are unaware of the important role iron plays in controlling ADHD symptoms.
A study done in 2004 showed that the average iron level of children with ADHD (measured as ferritin) was 22, compared with 44 in children who did not have ADHD. Another study showed that increasing iron levels in children with ADHD improved their symptoms almost as much as taking a stimulant.
The children in these studies were not anemic. The fact that your child has a normal “blood count” does not mean that his ferritin levels are normal. Because too much iron is dangerous, I do not recommend giving iron without first checking the ferritin level. Ask your pediatrician to test it.
If iron levels are low, below 35, say, talk with your doctor about starting your child on an iron supplement and/or increasing consumption of iron-rich foods, which include lean red meat, turkey and chicken, shellfish, and beans. The ferritin level should be rechecked in a few months.
ADHD Diet Rule 4: Check Zinc and Magnesium Levels
Zinc and magnesium are two other minerals that may play an important role in controlling ADHD symptoms. Both are essential to normal health, and a surprising number of children and adults, with and without ADHD, don’t get enough of them. Zinc regulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, and it may make methylphenidate more effective by improving the brain’s response to dopamine.
Magnesium is also used to make neurotransmitters involved in attention and concentration, and it has a calming effect on the brain. Have your doctor check your or your child’s magnesium and zinc levels when you test ferritin levels. I find that at least 25 percent of the children I see are low in zinc.
While studies have been done on both minerals’ effects on ADHD, the results are not as clear-cut as in studies done on omega-3s and iron.
ADHD Diet Rule 5: Cut Back on Chemicals
Several studies4 suggest that artificial additives make children without ADHD more hyperactive, and make hyperactive children worse. The European Union requires a warning label on food packaging that contains additives: “This food may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Gatorade, cheese puffs, and candy are typical examples of foods containing artificial colors and preservatives, but additives and colors can be found in other foods.
The first step in avoiding additives is to read food ingredient labels until you’ve found a wide range of foods that are additive-free. In most cases, fresh, unprocessed foods are your best bet, as they contain few additives.
However, these days you can find bread, cereal, cookies, pizza, and just about anything else made without additives.
Avoid colorful cereals, like Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms. Cheerios are better, and lower in sugar. Substitute 100-percent fruit juice for soft drinks and fruit punches, most of which are artificially colored and flavored.
ADHD Diet Rule 6: Watch for Food Sensitivities
A number of research studies have shown that many children with ADHD are sensitive to certain common foods in the diet. These sensitivities make their ADHD symptoms significantly worse. In one recent study5 50 children were placed on a restricted diet for five weeks, and 78 percent of them had significant improvements in ADHD symptoms!
In my practice, I have seen improvements in many children when they stopped eating foods they were sensitive to. The most common culprits are dairy, wheat, and soy.
It’s important to know that children with ADHD do not necessarily have “food allergies” in the strict, medical sense. Results when testing for food allergies are usually negative in these kids. The only way to know whether food sensitivities affect your child is to remove certain foods from daily consumption and observe his reaction. A child might have food sensitivities if he displays allergy symptoms, like hay fever, asthma, eczema, or GI problems. But I have seen children with none of these problems respond well to a change in what they eat.
If there are one or two foods you suspect might be exacerbating your child’s ADHD symptoms, eliminate one for two or three weeks. Observe your child’s ADHD symptoms during that time. If you are thinking about starting a restrictive plan, find a professional to guide you. I know changes are tough to engineer in a child with ADHD, but many families have done it successfully and are happy with the results.
ADHD Diet Rule 7: Try Helpful Herbs
Several herbs have been recommended for managing ADHD symptoms, including ginkgo, St. John’s Wort, rhodiola, and ginseng. Most have been poorly researched, with two exceptions.
In a large European study on hyperactivity and sleep problems, a combination of valerian and lemon balm helped to relax children with ADHD by reducing anxiety. I use these herbs regularly for kids who deal with these problems. Consult a naturopathic doctor to find the appropriate dose for your child.
To improve attention, a new herbal product, called Nurture & Clarity, was developed, and carefully tested, by a team of practitioners in Israel. The children taking it demonstrated significant improvement, as measured by their performance on the Test of Variables Attention, a computerized measurement of attention. I would not make definitive recommendations based on one study, but this product is worth looking into. You can read about it at adhd-clarity.com.
Finally, pycnogenol, an extract made from French maritime pine bark, has been shown to improve ADHD symptoms in a limited amount of research. I have found that the herb helps improve concentration in some children.
One last thought: Herbal products vary greatly in quality, and some contain contaminants. You should find a knowledgeable professional to help you identify reliable sources of pure, standardized herbs.
7 Foods to Avoid If Your Child Has ADHD
Avoid Candy on a Diet for ADHD
Candy is loaded with sugar and artificial colors, a bad combination for children with ADHD. Both of these common ingredients have been shown to promote ADHD symptoms — namely hyperactivity — in studies. “With the high content of sugar and artificial coloring, candy is a huge contributor to ADHD,” said Howard Peiper, a naturopath and the author of The ADD and ADHD Diet!
Sodas, Caffeine, and High-Fructose Corn Syrup Cause ADHD Symptoms
If you have ADHD, consider eliminating soda. (Even if you don’t have ADHD, saying no to soda is a good idea.) These drinks often have many of the same sugars and sweeteners that make candy a bad idea for kids on the ADHD diet. And soda has other ingredients that worsen ADHD symptoms, such as high-fructose corn syrup and caffeine. “Excessive sugar and caffeine intake both cause symptoms of hyperactivity and easy distractibility,” says Dr. Barnhill. One 2013 study found that 5-year-old children who drank sodas were more likely to show aggression and social withdrawal.
Frozen Fruits and Vegetables May Exacerbate ADHD Symptoms
Although fruits and vegetables are healthy choices for an ADHD diet, some frozen brands contain artificial colors, so check all labels carefully. Barnhill says some frozen foods can exacerbate ADHD symptoms for another reason: “Foods treated with organophosphates for insect control have been shown to cause neurologic-based behavioral problems that mimic ADHD and many other behavior problems.”
Nix Cake Mixes and Frostings on a Diet for ADHD
Cake mix and frosting contain the high amounts of sugar and artificial colors that can lead to hyperactivity and other ADHD symptoms. Naheed Ali, MD, PhD, an expert on ADHD and the author of Diabetes and You: A Comprehensive, Holistic Approach, added that these products are often also loaded with several artificial sweeteners. “When frosting and cake mix contain artificial sweeteners, they increase the risk of ADHD symptoms more than natural sweeteners would,” he says.
Energy Drinks Can Worsen ADHD Symptoms in Teens
Energy drinks are becoming increasingly popular among kids, especially teens. Unfortunately, they also have a veritable treasure trove of ingredients that can worsen ADHD symptoms: sugar, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, caffeine, and other stimulants. “Energy drinks are high on the list of things that cause teens to display behaviors mimicking ADHD,” says Barnhill. They have no place in a healthy ADHD diet.
Ask an ADHD Dietitian About Eating Fish and Other Seafood
Dr. Ali says that eating fish and other seafood with trace amounts of mercury can exacerbate ADHD symptoms in the long term. Some of the worst culprits are shark, king mackerel, swordfish, and tilefish. “Mercury, like cellulose, is extremely hard to digest and can accumulate in the brain over time,” explains Ali. “This can lead to hyperactivity.” Talk to your doctor or ADHD nutritionist about the best types of fish to include in an ADHD diet.
ADHD Symptoms May Be Caused by Food Sensitivities
Many children with food sensitivities can exhibit ADHD symptoms after they are exposed to certain foods. Some of the common foods that can cause ADHD reactions include milk, chocolate, soy, wheat, eggs, beans, corn, tomatoes, grapes, and oranges. If you suspect a food sensitivity may be contributing to your child’s ADHD symptoms, talk to your ADHD dietitian or doctor about trying an elimination diet.