Certain foods can make your child’s ADHD symptoms worse. Here’s what you need to know to create a better ADHD diet.
For years, doctors have speculated that certain foods may have something to do with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. Much research has been done on the subject of a helpful diet for ADHD, but according to the Mayo Clinic, experts don’t believe that foods actually cause ADHD. What some foods seem to do, however, is worsen ADHD symptoms or cause behavior that mimics the signs of ADHD in children.
Some evidence suggests that children with ADHD may have low levels of essential fatty acids. However, early studies have not consistently concluded that supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids in the diets of children with ADHD will improve behavior. Omega-3 fatty acids affect the transmissions of some neurotransmitters (brain chemicals). While a balance of omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids is best for overall health, the typical American diet contains too few omega-3s. Some research shows that ADHD and omega-3 deficiency share two symptoms:
- Excessive thirst
- Increased need to urinate
More research is needed in this area. The general dietary recommendations for children are to include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, bean, lean meat, and fish. Ask your ADHD dietitian about the best type of fish for ADHD.
Many parents wonder if artificial food additives and colorings contribute to ADHD. Though the causes of ADHD are still unknown, you can try removing the sources of artificial colorings and food additives, including sugar-sweetened drinks, candy, and colorful cereals, and determine if your child’s behavior improves. Eliminate processed food products, and instead provide a wholesome diet of fresh, healthy foods to optimize the health and well-being of your child.
Be aware that megadoses of vitamins and minerals can be toxic to a child and can interact with ADHD pills. To date, there is little consistent evidence that ADHD can be treated with nutritional supplements. Again, aim for a balanced diet that includes a variety of fresh, whole foods.
What about caffeine and ADHD? Excessive caffeine and excessive consumption of fast foods and other foods of poor nutritional value can cause kids to display behavior that might be confused with ADHD, according to Frank Barnhill, MD, an expert on ADHD and the author of Mistaken for ADHD.
To learn more about a diet for ADHD, talk with your child’s doctor about the pros and cons of trying a diet that eliminates food additives to see if it makes a difference in your child’s behavior. Make sure your doctor or an ADHD dietitian helps supervise the diet plan. A diet that eliminates too many foods can be unhealthy because it may lack necessary vitamins and nutrients.
Read on for a list of foods that may be linked with ADHD symptoms.
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 to 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.
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 a 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.
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.
Nix Cake Mixes and Frostings on a Diet for ADHD
Cake mix and frosting contain high amounts of sugar and artificial colors that can lead to hyperactivity and other ADHD symptoms. Naheed Ali, MD, Ph.D., 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.
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.”
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.
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!