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4 Foods to Help Manage ADHD

Melissa Finley
Melissa Finley Editorial Content Manager

With 8% of adults and nearly 10% of children diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (known as ADHD), Americans are seeking to address the issue any way possible. With symptoms such as an inability to focus, restlessness, mood swings, and compulsive behaviors, it may sound strange to hear that nutrition can play a role in managing ADHD.

What Foods Affect ADHD?

If you’ve ever given a child a lot of sugar, then you may know the answer to some of the first foods to avoid if you suffer from ADHD. Sugar isn’t the only culprit. Other foods to avoid, as they often increase hyperactivity include:

  • Candy
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Caffeinated beverages
  • Chocolate
  • Red and yellow artificial colorings

Does Food Have an Impact on ADHD?

Our bodies work in unique, and sometimes confusing, ways. Each system is often dependent on one, or many, other systems to function properly. In this way, the foods you eat often impact various bodily functions, including hyperactivity, inability to focus, and social dysregulation, which are common symptoms of ADHD.

A review of several studies from 2016 to 2018 deduced that foods play a role in children’s development, and can impact specifically ADHD. For example, ADHD was less present in those with higher nutrient levels of vegetable iron and zinc.

A study of the U.S. pediatric population reported that increased fruit and vegetable intake resulted in decreased inattention, noting that “findings suggest that dietary intake may impact inattention in children with ADHD and ED.”

Many studies note a need for further research, though preliminary findings support a healthy diet. With no side effects, low to no risk, and several additional positive outcomes, it is not hard to see why a healthy diet is worth a chance.

Foods to Improve ADHD Symptoms

1. Focus on Whole Foods

MedShadow Medical Advisory Board member and Registered Dietician Alison Acerra says that focusing your daily food intake on whole foods can go a long way in fulfilling your body’s need for micro nutrients.

The Mediterranean Diet, in particular, supports optimal brain functioning,” says Acerra. She says the foods may also reduce the risk for ADHD.

Because those with ADHD tend to be more nutrient-deficient, Acerra recommends a diet focused on balance. With 80% of children diagnosed with ADHD (compared to 48% without ADHD) also deficient in Vitamin D, Acerra says diet is crucial.

In addition to Vitamin D, lower levels of iron (anemia) and low zinc levels have also been linked to those with ADHD.

“Zinc supplementation was actually found to reduce symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity, and impaired socialization in those carrying the diagnosis,” says Acerra.

Acerra also notes that the Mediterranean Diet, which is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, another deficiency noted in those suffering from ADHD, can help with brain function. Omega-3 fatty acids are often found in fatty fish varieties, flax, and chia seeds.

2. Improve Gut Health

“There is a link between gut bacteria and ADHD,” says Acerra. “Gut bacteria can be influenced by nutrition, lifestyle, and environment, so you can improve the health of your gut by increasing fiber intake, from whole, plant-based foods, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables.”

A diet with healthy amounts of fiber can keep your body more regular, bacteria more balanced, and reduce bloating and discomfort in the digestive tract.

3. Reduce Food Sensitivity

It may seem hard to imagine, but certain foods can actually trigger ADHD symptoms.

“Foods like gluten, corn, soy, dairy … are known triggers,” says Acerra. “About 85% of people who tried an elimination diet saw a 50% improvement in their ADHD symptoms.”

Identifying triggering foods can be unique to each individual. Plans like the “Elimination Diet” can help you remove foods and slowly introduce them back into your routine. Following guided plans such as the Elimination Diet can have the most benefit when also used in conjunction with a symptoms tracker. This way you can note the foods you’ve had and how they make you feel each day, until you can narrow in on what may be the cause of your symptoms worsening.

Acerra says these diets, which include removing known triggers, “gives the gut time to heal, which in turn can be a long-time management strategy for ADHD.”

4. Cut Back on Processed Foods

In another way to “take care of the gut,” Acerra recommends cutting back or eliminating as much as possible any processed foods.

“ADHD can be exacerbated by foods that are rich in sugars, as well as those with additives and preservatives,” says Acerra. “Think frozen and packaged foods.”

Research has shown that food additives, such as synthetic food dyes, can “cause hyperactivity and other neurobehavioral issues in children,” she says. Less processed foods also support better gut health, which reduces symptoms of ADHD.

What Role Does Food Play in ADHD?

As noted above, there are several correlations with diet and ADHD symptoms. Continued research will be required to narrow down additional causations of exacerbated symptoms.

But, one thing is for sure: a healthy diet has only proven positive results. From better energy, mood, sleep, and attention/focus, to a healthier gut, longer life expectancy, and reduced risk of multiple diseases and conditions, a healthy diet can go a long way to improving your overall life!

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