As ADHD has become more widely-known many have questioned the possible link between ADHD and diet. A range of ADHD diets have sprung up over the years, many of which seriously restrict or eliminate different types of food.
Is there a link between ADHD and diet and if so how can food choices impact the ADHD sufferer?
One of the main myths surrounding ADHD is that it is caused by diets high in sugar and processed food. Foods which have additives or food colorings in have often been blamed for the condition.
These ideas have led to the myth that a special diet can ‘cure’ ADHD, which doesn’t consider the multiple causes and complex ways the condition can present.
Despite this, changes to diet can positively impact symptoms for many different subsets of sufferers.
How can diet negatively impact ADHD symptoms?
Although artificial food colorings have not been shown to be a cause of ADHD, some studies have suggested that a diet which eliminates them can help ease symptoms for many ADHD sufferers.
A recent study conducted in Britain does suggest that they may exacerbate certain symptoms in children such as hyperactivity. This study led to the advice that 6 artificial food colorings should be removed from food marketed to children in the UK.
Other studies “evaluating the impact of artificial food coloring suggests that removing these agents from the diets of children with ADHD would be about one-third to one-half as effective as treatment with methylphenidate (Ritalin).” However, both studies cautioned that this potential affect would only be relevant to a small proportion of children with ADHD.
Refined sugar is well-known for being bad for the health generally, and some studies have shown that for children who already suffer from hyperactivity symptoms, adding in additional sugary foods and drinks can worsen their symptoms.
Another effect of artificial colorings and excessively sugary foods are that they cause spikes in blood sugar which can have a negative impact on mood and energy levels throughout the day.
If a person who has ADHD already suffers from difficulty with impulsivity and focusing attention, having energy surges and crashes will only add negatively to these issues.
Energy drinks have been shown to increase hyperactivity and poor attention spans in children, and researchers at Yale argue that this could have strong links to negative outcomes such as -“ a strong correlation between children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and poor academic outcomes, greater difficulties with peer relationships, and increased susceptibility to injuries.”
For adults, too much caffeine and alcohol could also have negative impacts on areas such as attention and Executive Function.
Studies have shown that there may be a link between Celiac disease and ADHD, with an over-representation of ADHD sufferers amongst those who also have Celiac Disease. Although the link is not indicative of causation, many specialist advise that ADHD sufferers are screened for Celiac Disease.
Cutting out gluten may help those who also have a gluten sensitivity, however to test for Celiac Disease, via an initial blood test, gluten must have been present in the system for at least a month prior to testing.
Which Dietary Choices might help Improve Symptoms?
There have been some studies which have shown that ‘Elimination Diets’ which cut out different food such as eggs, white bread, sugar, additives and gluten can have a positive impact on symptoms.
One popular ADHD Diet – the Feingold Diet, has not been shown to be effective in treating ADHD symptoms, and it requires cutting out many food groups entirely.
These sorts of elimination diets should be undertaken under the supervision of a nutritionist or health care practitioner, so that care is taken not to eliminate essential nutrients, which could cause a worsening of health in the long-term.
Foods which are considered to have a positive effect on ADHD sufferers include:
High Protein Foods: Foods like lean meat, eggs, fish and beans have all been shown to help combat surges in blood sugar, which can increase hyperactivity.
Foods Rich in Nutrients: Foods such as mushrooms, whole-wheat products, pork, beef, eggs and legumes are Vitamin B rich, and avocados, spinach, oranges, black currants, onions, broccoli, kiwi, tomatoes are rich in vitamin C
Whole Grains and Healthy Fats: Sources such as oatmeal, wholegrain bread and pasta and brown rice, as well as olive oil and fats found in seeds, nuts and avocados can all help control blood sugar levels.
Food supplements are often advertised as being ‘miracle’ cures for many conditions, and for ADHD this is no exception.
Studies have found that some ADHD sufferers are deficient in vitamins and minerals such as zinc, iron, magnesium and Vitamin B6, but studies which have looked into whether supplementing with these vitamins and minerals have not yielded consistent results.
It may be that adding some of these vitamins and minerals does help with ADHD symptoms, but it is usually advised that this is achieved through a healthy and well-balanced diet, especially because serious harm can occur if people ‘mega-dose’ on supplements.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids are an additional dietary area which shows promise in helping to combat ADHD symptoms.
“Researchers have explored whether a deficiency of omega-3 fats might contribute to symptoms of ADHD because these fatty acids perform a number of functions in the brain, such as affecting transmission of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin and helping brain cells to communicate. ADHD and an omega-3 deficiency also share two symptoms: excess thirst and increased need to urinate. Some evidence suggests that children with ADHD may have low levels of essential fatty acids.” (Harvard Medical School Health newsletter)
Foods which are high in Omega-3 fatty acids include vegetable oils, and oils form fish such as tuna and salmon. While the link between ADHD and Omega-3 has still not been conclusively proven, adding in a diet rich in these foods is certainly part of a rich and healthy diet.
Other Diet and Lifestyle Considerations
One important way to ensure that diet helps to ease symptoms is to ensure that meals and snacks are planned and eaten regularly. A well-balanced diet that is consistent will lead to a greater ability to manage energy spikes as well as ease cognitive functioning.
Ensuring that breakfast is eaten every morning, and that each meal is well-balanced, with plenty of choice from different healthy food-groups is essential to maintaining overall health as well as adding positively to symptom management.
For many children in particular the effects of a poor diet can be overcome in the classroom, however children with ADHD are at a greater risk of losing focus and might struggle to combat the effects of a diet low in healthy foods.
Organic food choices might also impact ADHD symptoms. This is because they do not contain many of the hormones and pesticides which some people believe adds negatively to the effects of ADHD. Eating organic vegetables for example may cut the level of pesticides by up to 80 percent.
Healthy and regular snacks can be useful – ensuring that energy levels are maintained and that frustration from hunger or sugar cravings are kept at bay. Fruits and raw vegetables can be an excellent source of healthy fuel.
Ensuring that a positive relationship to food is developed is also vital to using diet to help combat ADHD symptoms. For adults, this might mean reeducation on eating fresh foods and cutting out caffeine.
Encouraging children to eat a healthy diet via rewards and positive modeling is key to helping them manage their symptoms. It might take some time to do this if your child is used to sugary snacks or processed food.
Healthy Living for ADHD
ADHD is a complex condition which is still not fully understood. Therefore, any advice which makes claims to be able to either prevent or cure ADHD via diet should be treated with suspicion.
This kind of advice does not fully consider the multiple ways that ADHD can develop as well as the range of symptoms.
For example, treating sugar and food colorings as the ‘enemy’ because they have been shown to increase hyperactivity in some children, means that only one area of ADHD is being considered.
There’s no convincing evidence that hyperactivity is either present in all people with ADHD, or that cutting out sugar and food colorings will help every person who has hyperactivity problems.
Eliminating food groups can also be risky if it isn’t done under the proper care and supervision of a nutritionist or healthcare practitioner. Because many essential vitamins and minerals are found in foods which are eliminated in diets such as the Feingold Diet, it is important that these are replaced.
Additionally, over-supplementing by giving ADHD sufferers ‘mega-doses’ of vitamins can cause toxic reactions which can inflict serious harm.
The best advice is to ensure that a well-balanced diet is followed and to eliminate food groups individually and slowly, introducing healthier alternatives as this is done.
A healthy diet can positively impact ADHD symptoms, so long as it is carried out mindfully and with support.