Nutrition Tips for ADHD

Have you wondered whether certain foods could improve or worsen ADHD symptoms? Let’s break down how the food you eat can affect ADHD symptoms and how having ADHD can affect your eating habits.

Does nutrition affect ADHD?

Many people try eliminating certain foods or ingredients from their diet to improve their ADHD symptoms. Yet, the research on how impactful these diet changes are is still limited and mixed.

Does sugar make ADHD worse?

Sugar is often cited as a trigger for hyperactivity, especially in kids with ADHD. But even though sugar does provide a quick burst of energy, there’s more to the story.

Some studies show that consuming a lot of sugary items is linked with hyperactivity. But, this association may also be related to the environment in which the sweets were consumed. In other words, people often enjoy more sweets in environments that are already stimulating, like birthday parties.

Sugar recommendations:

  • You don't need to completely cut out sugar from your diet. But, moderating your sugar intake is a good idea for both adults and children. 
  • Eating too much sugar can leave less room in your diet for more nutritious foods. It can also affect how your brain regulates feel-good chemicals like dopamine.
  • Aim to get less than 10% of your daily calories from added sugar. For a 2,000 calorie diet, that amounts to 50 grams of sugar, or 12 teaspoons.

Do elimination diets for ADHD work?

You may have heard that you should eliminate ingredients like gluten, casein, food dyes, and/or preservatives to manage ADHD. However, elimination diets for ADHD aren’t always effective.

People tend to have unique responses to elimination diets. This may be due to allergies, genetic differences in how we respond to food, and differences in gut bacteria. Elimination diets can also be restrictive and hard to maintain over time.

If you’re considering an elimination diet, weigh the risks versus benefits. You can also seek support from a registered dietitian nutritionist to help you make a plan.

What nutrients help with ADHD?

Adding certain nutrients and healthy habits can be helpful for people with ADHD.

Disclaimer: Talk to your medical provider before starting a dietary supplement, especially if you’re on medications.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Fat is a macronutrient with many important functions. One of its functions is to keep your nervous system functioning. Fats are made of building blocks called fatty acids.

One specific type of fatty acid is omega-3 fatty acids. These may be present at lower levels in people with ADHD. Some studies show that taking omega-3 supplements slightly improves ADHD symptoms. 

Omega-3 sources:

  • supplements (fish oil, algae oil)
  • fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, and trout)
  • seaweed
  • walnuts
  • hemp seeds
  • flaxseeds
  • chia seeds

Other micronutrients

Some studies show that multivitamins improve ADHD symptoms like inattention and emotional regulation.

It’s important to note that these studies were done with non-medicated people. They also used supplement pills that have much higher amounts of vitamins than the kind you’d be able to find over the counter. More research is needed to confirm how multivitamins affect people with ADHD, especially those taking stimulant medications.

Whole diet approaches

Improving the quality of the food you eat can boost your wellbeing. This also applies to people with ADHD. A balanced diet can keep your blood sugar stable, sharpen your focus, and prevent overeating.

The evidence on the link between diet quality and ADHD symptoms is still limited. Some studies show ADHD is more common in adolescents who eat a standard American diet. This eating pattern tends to be high in fat, refined carbohydrates, and salt. It’s also low in beneficial nutrients like omega-3s and fiber.

In contrast, healthy eating patterns that include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are linked to lower levels of hyperactivity.

It’s difficult to determine exactly how the relationship between food and ADHD works. Certain foods can affect the way your brain functions, and the way your brain functions can also affect the food you eat.

Bottom line:

  • ADHD is affected by many complex factors. Food is only one small piece of the puzzle. Diet changes can assist your mental health treatment, but they aren’t a replacement.
  • The research on how food affects ADHD is limited, and you know your body best. It’s okay to experiment with making diet changes to see if it improves how you feel. 
  • Remember, your whole dietary pattern almost always has a bigger impact than individual foods or nutrients.

Can ADHD affect your eating habits?

Common medications for ADHD can affect your eating habits. So can the way your brain functions. But, with a few nutrition tips for ADHD, it’s possible to work with your brain to improve your diet and overall health.

Medications

Stimulant medications used to treat ADHD often come with side effects like reduced appetite. If you’re not hungry after you take your medication, it’s easy to skip meals and under-eat. Less is not always more when it comes to healthy eating. Under-eating can decrease your focus and energy levels and put you at risk for low blood sugar and nutrient deficiencies. 

Eating tips when taking medication for ADHD:

  • Eat a balanced meal before taking your medication.
  • Once your medication kicks in, keep higher-calorie, nutrient-dense snacks nearby. Examples are trail mix or a smoothie. Taking a few sips or bites at a time is easier to stomach than a whole meal.
  • Have a meal planned and prepared for the time when your medication starts to wear off.

Executive function

ADHD can also be understood as a difficulty with executive functioning. Executive functions are brain functions that help you with accomplishing tasks. These include organizing, prioritizing, focusing, managing emotions, and memory, among others. 

For people with ADHD, executive functioning difficulties make behaviors involved in healthy eating habits more challenging. This includes planning meals, remembering to eat, and impulsive or emotional eating.

How to establish healthy routines

Even if your ADHD makes it hard to stick to healthy routines, it’s possible to set yourself up for success. 

Here are some nutrition tips for ADHD:

  • Set alarms or reminders to eat.
  • Eat balanced meals at regular intervals to prevent getting too hungry and impulsively eating.
  • Write down your goals and keep them somewhere visible.
  • Break down your plans into small, manageable parts. For example, if you want to make and stick to a meal plan, you’ll need to start by seeing what you have in your fridge and pantry. Then, you’ll write down some meal ideas, make a grocery list, shop, and figure out the best days to prepare your meal.

Bottom line: 

  • Eating healthy can be challenging for people with ADHD, but it is possible. 
  • Healthy habits, like eating a nutritious diet, can help your brain work more efficiently. This makes it easier to stick to your plan in the long run.

Are you interested in learning more about what nutrition means for your mental health? Cerebral offers nutrition management services in select states. Try taking our nutrition assessment today.

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