Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects people of all ages, from children to adults. It can impact an individual’s ability to focus, control impulsive behaviors, and regulate emotions.
While various treatments and medications are available to manage ADHD, diet can also play a crucial role in managing symptoms. Certain foods can exacerbate ADHD symptoms, leading to hyperactivity, impulsivity, and poor focus.
In this blog post, we’ll discuss some of the foods to avoid ADHD for both adults and children. By making simple changes to your diet, you can improve your overall health and well-being while reducing the impact of ADHD symptoms on your daily life.
Foods To Avoid With ADHD
Caffeine can increase anxiety, irritability, and insomnia in people with ADHD, especially if consumed in large amounts or late in the day. Caffeine can also interfere with some ADHD medications and reduce their effectiveness. Caffeinated drinks include coffee, tea, energy drinks, and sodas.
Food Dyes and Preservatives
Some artificial colors and additives may worsen ADHD symptoms in some people, especially children. A study from 2011 found that the consumption of sodium benzoate and other preservatives can affect the strength of a person’s ADHD symptoms.
Examples of food dyes and preservatives include Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, sodium benzoate, BHA, BHT, and TBHQ13. They are often found in candies, cereals, snacks, drinks, and processed foods.
Frozen Fruits and Veggies
Frozen fruits and vegetables may lose some nutrients and antioxidants during the freezing process, which can affect the brain health and function of people with ADHD. Frozen fruits and veggies may also contain added sugars, salts, or sauces that can increase the intake of simple carbs and sodium.
Fresh or organic fruits and vegetables are better for people with ADHD, as they provide more vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals to support brain health.
Mercury-based Fish and Seafood
Mercury is a toxic metal that can accumulate in the brain and cause neurological damage, especially in children. Mercury can impair cognitive function, memory, attention, and mood in people with ADHD. Mercury-based fish and seafood include
- King mackerel
- Tilefish, and
People with ADHD should limit their consumption of these fish and seafood and opt for low-mercury alternatives, such as
- Herring, and
Refined and Artificial Sugar
Sugar is the simple carb considered most troublesome for children with ADHD, and kids who eat less of it display fewer ADHD symptoms. Sugar can cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, affecting energy, mood, and concentration in people with ADHD. Sugar can also increase inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain, impairing cognitive function and neurotransmitter balance.
Examples of refined and artificial sugar include :
- White sugar
- Brown sugar
- Corn syrup
- High fructose corn syrup
- Maple syrup
- Agave nectar, and
- Artificial sweeteners
They are often found in cakes, cookies, candies, pastries, ice cream, and soft drinks.
Some people with ADHD may have food allergies or sensitivities that can trigger or worsen their symptoms. Common food allergens include wheat, gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and chocolate.
These foods can cause inflammation, digestive issues, and immune reactions, affecting brain function and behavior in people with ADHD. People with ADHD should consult their doctor or nutritionist to test for allergies or sensitivities and avoid or limit the foods that cause them problems.
Salicylates are natural chemicals found in some fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices that can cause adverse reactions in some people with ADHD.
Salicylates can affect the production and metabolism of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, which are involved in attention, mood, and motivation. Salicylates can also cause headaches, stomachaches, rashes, and behavioral changes in some people with ADHD
How to Plan and Prepare Healthy Meals for ADHD
Here are some tips and examples of how to plan and prepare healthy meals for ADHD:
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially for people with ADHD, as it can provide energy, stabilize blood sugar, and boost brain function. A good breakfast for ADHD should include protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats, such as eggs, whole-grain bread, oatmeal, nuts, seeds, fruits, and yogurt. Some examples of breakfast ideas are:
- Scrambled eggs with cheese and spinach, whole-wheat toast, and a glass of milk
- Oatmeal with chia seeds, blueberries, almond butter, and a glass of orange juice
- Greek yogurt with granola, banana, and walnuts, and a cup of green tea
- Whole-grain waffles with peanut butter and strawberries and a glass of soy milk
Lunch can help maintain energy, focus, and mood throughout the day and prevent afternoon slumps and cravings. A good lunch for ADHD should include protein, complex carbohydrates, and vegetables, such as chicken, turkey, tuna, beans, lentils, brown rice, quinoa, salad, and soup. Some examples of lunch ideas are:
- Chicken and vegetable wrap with a whole-wheat tortilla, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, cheese, and hummus, and a fruit salad
- Turkey and cheese sandwich with whole-grain bread, mustard, lettuce, and tomato, and a cup of vegetable soup
- Tuna and avocado salad with lettuce, spinach, carrots, celery, and sunflower seeds, and a whole-grain roll
- Bean and cheese burrito with a whole-wheat tortilla, black beans, cheese, salsa, guacamole, and a cup of yogurt
Dinner can help replenish nutrients, relax the body, and prepare for a good night’s sleep, which is essential for people with ADHD. A good dinner for ADHD should include protein, complex carbohydrates, and vegetables, such as fish, lean meat, tofu, pasta, potatoes, broccoli, and cauliflower. Some examples of dinner ideas are:
- Salmon with lemon and dill, brown rice, and steamed broccoli
- Lean beef burger with whole-wheat bun, lettuce, tomato, onion, and ketchup, and baked sweet potato fries
- Tofu and vegetable stir-fry with soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, and honey, and whole-wheat noodles
- Spaghetti with turkey meatballs, marinara sauce, parmesan cheese, and a green salad
Can Food trigger ADHD?
There is no definitive answer to whether food can trigger ADHD, as different people may react differently to certain foods.
However, some studies and experts suggest that some foods may worsen ADHD symptoms or cause allergic reactions that mimic ADHD behaviors. Some of the foods that may trigger ADHD include:
Candy and Soft Drinks
These foods are high in sugar and artificial colors, which may increase hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention in some children and adults with ADHD.
These foods may contain sodium bisulfite, a preservative that may cause allergic reactions such as headaches, irritability, and mood swings in some people with ADHD.
These foods may contain high levels of mercury, a toxic metal that may impair brain development and function in children and adults with ADHD. Some examples of fish that may contain mercury are sharks, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish3.
These foods may cause allergic reactions such as hives, rashes, itching, swelling, and breathing difficulties in some people with ADHD, affecting their attention, concentration, and mood. Some common foods that may cause allergies are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish.
This flavor enhancer may cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue in some people with ADHD, which may interfere with their cognitive and emotional functioning.
These foods may contain artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, and additives that may worsen ADHD symptoms or cause allergic reactions in some people with ADHD. Some examples of prepared foods are canned soups, frozen dinners, deli meats, hot dogs, and chips.
Foods Containing Gluten
These foods may cause digestive problems, inflammation, and brain fog in some people with ADHD who have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. Some examples of foods containing gluten are bread, pasta, cereals, crackers, and pastries.
Of course, not everyone with ADHD will react similarly to these foods, and some people may not notice any difference. The best way to find out if food triggers your ADHD is to keep a food diary and track your symptoms or consult your doctor or a nutritionist for advice.
How To Cope With Food Cravings And Emotional Eating If You Have ADHD?
Managing food cravings and emotional eating can be particularly challenging if you have ADHD. These behaviors may be linked to stress, boredom, or low self-esteem, common challenges for people with ADHD. Here are some strategies that may help you cope with food cravings and emotional eating:
Identify the situations or emotions that trigger your food cravings or emotional eating. Keep a food diary or an emotions journal to track your eating patterns and identify any triggers.
Find Alternative Activities
Look for activities that can help you manage stress, boredom, or low self-esteem without relying on food. This could include exercise, meditation, breathing exercises, or engaging in a hobby or activity you enjoy.
Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions when you crave or feel like eating emotionally. Try to be non-judgmental and accept your thoughts and feelings without acting on them.
Eat Regular, Balanced Meals
Eating regular, balanced meals can help prevent food cravings and emotional eating. Include plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.
Avoid Skipping Meals
Skipping meals can lead to low blood sugar, triggering food cravings and emotional eating. Try to eat at regular intervals throughout the day.
Avoid Keeping Trigger Foods in the House
If you know that certain foods trigger your cravings, try to avoid them. Instead, stock up on healthy snacks and foods that you enjoy.
Consider reaching out to a therapist or counselor who can help you develop coping strategies for managing stress, boredom, or low self-esteem. You may also find it helpful to connect with a support group for people with ADHD.
Managing ADHD symptoms requires a comprehensive approach involving various strategies, including medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes like a diet. By avoiding certain foods and incorporating healthier choices, people with ADHD can potentially reduce the severity of their symptoms and improve their overall well-being.
While it may be challenging to avoid foods that are typically part of our daily routines, such as processed snacks or sugary drinks, the benefits of doing so can be substantial.