This article consists of two parts. Part 1 is about creating an ADHD-friendly eating schedule, whereas Par 2 offers scientifically backed food recommendations.
Can any particular food alleviate symptoms of ADHD? Quality research on the subject is extremely scarce, especially for adults. The current understanding is that few food groups or specific nutrients influence ADHD symptoms. Although there's no single ADHD-friendly diet, there is still much to be discussed at the intersection of nutrition and ADHD.
As nutritionists that work with ADHD point out more and more, individuals with ADHD have their own hurdles to cross, most of which involve things like meal planning and eating mindfully. Once a reasonably stable food schedule is established, one can finally consider prioritizing certain foods.
Meal planning, who?
Cooking at home and planning meals are both great tactics because they let you eat nutrient-dense food every day of the week. Everyone knows this, yet many folks with ADHD find themselves skipping meals all day and eating packaged snacks or takeout instead of a meal late at night.
If this scenario sounds familiar, the issue isn’t that you ate those cookies or pizza (because both are delicious). Instead, this indicates underlying patterns of eating that can be harmful, namely:
No meal schedule
Not eating enough throughout the day
Not having nutritious foods available.
Let’s take a step back and try to understand why it happens that so many ADHDers lack a meal schedule. Stimulant medications can be partially responsible, and so is not prioritizing nutrition over other tasks.
Together, medication side effects and ADHD symptoms can make it challenging for folks with ADHD to notice hunger. The quick solution is teaching oneself to eat every 3-4 hours during the day, but that could backfire, as it takes the joy out of eating and turns it into “just another chore.” A better way is to pay more attention to hunger cues.
Apart from a growling stomach, hunger can manifest itself through fatigue, headaches, mood changes, feelings of overwhelm, “hanger,” or even trouble making decisions, according to Becca King, a dietitian and nutritionist who specializes in ADHD. If it’s been over a few hours since the last meal, and you experience some of these cues, it’s time for a snack or a full meal.
Besides more mindful eating, setting up an external structure to remind yourself to eat throughout the day is also beneficial. Here are a few helpful tips for accomplishing that:
A protein-rich breakfast is especially beneficial for those with a low appetite all day due to medication.
Make snacks readily available, e.g., place a small bowl with fruit or nuts visible on the work desk.
Have low-effort food options on hand, such as home-cooked frozen foods, healthy snacks, yogurt, and drinks.
Set up alarms to be reminded of mealtimes.
As for those who would like to stop persistent late-night snacking, it’s helpful to understand that ADHDers often treat foods, especially the crunchy kind, for sensory stimulation when they are bored. “Structure your evenings with activities to avoid boredom, which causes us to gravitate to excess food for stimulation,” recommends Roberto Olivardia, a Clinical Psychologist and Instructor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, in an article for Additude Magazine.
The last piece of the meal planning puzzle is having healthy food available at home. You can accomplish this by stocking up on healthy snacks such as fruits, nuts, pre-chopped vegetables, individually packaged or drinkable dairy products, eggs, hummus, etc. It may also involve looking for more nutritious options on the takeout menu. The American Heart Association has a helpful guide: 4 Tips to Eat Healthier When Ordering Takeout or Food Delivery.
The last way to conjure up healthy food at home is by cooking it. Admittedly, shopping for ingredients, following cooking steps, and finding time to cook can take a lot of work. That said, learning to prepare food at home is tremendously beneficial, as it ensures that most meals you eat throughout the week contain primarily fresh and healthy ingredients. If you don’t know where to start, here’s a fantastic cookbook by the National Resource Center on ADHD: Cookbook for Busy Minds.
Once your meal schedule is in order and includes plenty of nutritious foods, you’ve mastered the basics. It’s a significant achievement, so let’s honor it by taking your nutrition game up a notch. In Part 2, read about the foods some researchers consider to benefit ADHD.
ADHD-Friendly Foods Backed by Science
The nutrients and foods listed here are a nice way to complement a well-rounded therapeutic regimen. It is well-known that environmental influences like exercise or nutrition alone cannot cause ADHD, so don’t expect either of these foods to treat ADHD or replace medication, therapy, and coaching. Instead, these guidelines offer a general idea of nutrients and foods to focus on when building a weekly meal plan.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)
The brain is said to consist of nearly 60% fat, making it the body's fattiest organ. These fats facilitate the connection between neurons, thereby strengthening transmission. As a result, several scientists claim that essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) — found in fatty fish, nuts, and seeds — improve neuronal signal transmission in ADHD.
As a result, a handful of studies where participants with ADHD were given fish oil supplements have seen the light of day. The benefits listed in studies included a drop in impulsivity and hyperactivity and better focus. Note, however, that these benefits have only been tested on children, and the positive impact was found to be modest at best.
Examples of foods high in EFAs:
Fatty fish: salmon, tuna, and herring
Nuts: walnuts and pine nuts
Seeds: flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, and chia seeds
Plant oils: grapeseed, canola, and soybean.
One food group frequently mentioned in adult ADHD research is protein. The idea is that a protein-rich diet will ensure that the body can generate all the amino acids required to synthesize neurotransmitters.
Amino acids are the building blocks of cells, including neurotransmitters involved in the symptoms of ADHD. Three specific amino acids – tyrosine, tryptophan, and phenylalanine – are utilized to synthesize dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. A handful of small research papers attempted to supplement these amino acids for adults with ADHD, but the results were mixed. It’s also unclear if consuming protein-rich foods is comparable to amino acid supplements.
Examples of foods high in protein:
Fish and seafood
Legumes: lentils, peas, and beans
Nuts: almonds, walnuts, and pistachio
Dairy: hard cheese, cottage cheese, milk, and yogurt.
Some researchers have tried to find the roots of ADHD symptomology in micronutrient deficiencies. Although lower levels of vitamins and minerals are not uncommon in both children and adults with ADHD, adding a supplement doesn’t always seem to have any effect on symptoms. The better option would be to focus on a varied diet rich in animal and plant foods.
An investigation into the vitamin and mineral levels in adults with ADHD reports “lower concentrations of vitamins B2, B6 and B9 were associated with the ADHD diagnosis, and B2 and B6 also with symptom severity.” However, other studies that attempted supplementing B vitamins and vitamin C didn’t improve symptoms.
Low magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and calcium levels were reported in children with ADHD in a few studies, and other research papers have confirmed that zinc supplements positively influence symptoms. Iron supplements were also found to have beneficial effects on children with ADHD.
Before taking new supplements, check blood levels of these nutrients first, and have an appropriate dose of supplements prescribed by a professional. Unless one is deficient, taking some supplements can harm their health.
Should any foods be limited or avoided?
ADHDers, especially kids with ADHD, tend to be more sensitive than the general population to certain foods, and these sensitivities have sometimes been linked with worsening ADHD symptoms.
Elimination diets have been widely used to determine such sensitivities. A 2020 review study concludes: “The current evidence is not enough to recommend treating ADHD with diet interventions, but a subgroup of children and adolescents might warrant from elimination of certain food-items.”
The most common culprits of food sensitivities in ADHD are:
Food dyes, such as Red #40, Yellow #5, and Yellow #6.
Sugar and artificial sweeteners
Food additives and preservatives.
If food sensitivity is suspected, a medical professional may guide an individual with ADHD through the so-called Few Foods Elimination Diet.
It works by severely restricting the diet initially, so it should only be attempted under supervision. If symptoms improve, foods that may cause adverse reactions are reintroduced every 3-7 days. If symptoms reappear, the food is labeled sensitizing, and the individual is advised to reduce or eliminate it from their diet.
The bottom line is that, just like everyone, ADHDers will benefit from a well-balanced diet full of different food groups, including healthy fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Together with an exercise routine and enough sleep, a healthy and consistent diet can make a positive difference in one’s general well-being.
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