Can the Right Diet Help With ADHD Management?

Learn what the research says about food for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and items that may improve—or aggravate—symptoms.

orange juice, peanut butter toast, berries

Updated on September 21, 2023.

Have you ever wondered whether eating certain foods might make your attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) management more challenging? The connection between ADHD and diet have been widely studied. Yet, despite a growing body of research, it's still not clear what role food plays in childhood ADHD. And it's even less clear what impact diet has on ADHD in adults, since most research to date has been done in children.

If you're curious about whether eliminating certain foods from your diet or adding others might help manage your ADHD symptoms—such as hyperactivity, sleep disturbances, difficulty focusing, or irritability—here are some of the dietary modifications for ADHD that are being actively researched, as well as how they may be useful for you.

A note first: If you or a someone you care for have ADHD, it’s important to consult with a healthcare provider (HCP) before making dietary changes, particularly when it comes to adding or removing foods. Remember to tread carefully when it comes to supplements, too, as they may interact or interfere with other supplements or medications you might be taking.

Food additives

Food additives are synthetic chemicals that can include artificial preservatives, flavors, and sweeteners. In decades past, some experts asserted that foods with additives could worsen hyperactivity and other behavioral symptoms of ADHD. But these claims were based on a handful of small observational studies and not fully backed-up at the time. 

Now, while it’s far from conclusive, there is some evidence additives may influence ADHD symptoms. For example, a 2022 review published in BioMed Research International suggested they can affect growth, development, and behavior. And several reviews, including a 2022 review of 27 studies published in Environmental Health, have found there were statistically significant relationships between food dye exposure and behavioral outcomes.

Though more research is needed, it’s may be wise to limit foods containing these ingredients. Even if they don’t directly contribute to ADHD symptoms, doing so can help you eat more unprocessed, whole foods. That’s a win for your overall health.  

Sugar

Sugar’s relationship to ADHD symptoms is controversial, according to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association. Studies in humans, however, have not indicated there is direct causation.

That doesn't mean limiting candy, soft drinks, cookies, and other sugary treats is a bad idea. Excess intake can cause blood sugar to spike, then crash, making it harder to concentrate and focus. Eating too much sugar can also cause weight gain, which may contribute to other chronic conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as omega-3 and omega-6 fats, are thought to play a critical role in proper brain development and cognitive function. Some studies have found that both children and adults with ADHD are often lacking omega-3 fatty acids in their diets. 

Some research suggests that boosting blood levels of these healthy fats may improve attention and learning in children with ADHD, including a 2019 review of 126 studies published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences. Scientists looked at the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on a number of psychiatric disorders and found some benefits for children with ADHD. Still, the effect was not large, and more research is needed. 

To get more omega-3 fats, add foods like fatty fish, walnuts, soybeans, chia seeds and flaxseeds to your regular menu.

Iron

A review of 17 studies published in 2018 in Scientific Reports found some evidence that ADHD may be linked to issues with the way a child’s body stores iron, an important mineral for growth, respiration, and hormonal health. Since storage issues can lead to iron deficiency, it’s a good idea to talk to your child’s HCP about getting tested.

Zinc

An essential mineral, zinc helps heal wounds and keeps the immune system strong. But it may also be key for people with ADHD, because it helps maintain levels of certain brain neurotransmitters. These include dopamine, a brain hormone thought to play a role in regulating hyperactivity. 

However, the jury is still out. A 2021 study published in Nutrients which looked at both zinc and iron was unable to say with certainty that supplementing with zinc helps symptoms. Additional studies are necessary to confirm the theory that zinc might help. 

Magnesium

Some research poses that children with ADHD are often deficient in magnesium. Although the reasons for this are not clearly understood, studies suggest that increasing magnesium intake in children with ADHD may help improve attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. 

A 2021 study of 66 children with ADHD found that children who received magnesium together with vitamin D for eight weeks showed a significant reduction in overall symptoms compared with those who did not. Published in BMC Pediatrics, the study is promising, but small; much more exploration is required, involving larger groups of participants. 

The Western diet

Popular in the United States and other Western cultures, the Western diet tends to be high in refined grains, sugary soda, and foods containing saturated fat, such as red meat, dairy, and fried items. Findings from a large study published in Adolescent Psychiatry in 2016 suggest that the Western diet may be associated with a higher risk of developing ADHD compared to a "healthy" diet, packed with fresh produce, whole grains, and lean proteins.

BMI

Some research suggests that body mass index (BMI) and ADHD symptoms are associated with each other. There is also some evidence that if a person’s body mass index (BMI) is elevated, lowering it may improve symptoms of ADHD.

Building a healthy diet for you

Although some people with ADHD may benefit from adding or eliminating certain foods, keep in mind that much of the research is in the early stages or simply too contradictory to be certain of any benefit. It’s also important to note that each person will likely have their own unique food tolerances and intolerances. 

If you decide you'd like to try altering your diet, talk with your HCP to make sure you aren't inadvertently creating nutritional deficiencies or endangering your health with excessive amounts of certain foods or supplements. And whatever changes you make, it often helps to track your diet and your ADHD symptoms in a food journal so you and your HCP can observe any changes that may be beneficial or harmful.

Remember also that beyond specific foods, a balanced overall eating plan is a must for anyone living with a chronic condition. When you nourish your body with nutritious foods, you're more likely to have energy, focus, and overall good health.

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The Washington Post. Dr. Benjamin F. Feingold, Controversial Pediatrician. Accessed on May 26, 2023. 
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Nigg JT, Lewis K, Edinger T, et al. Meta-analysis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, restriction diet, and synthetic food color additives. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2012 Jan;51(1):86-97.e8.
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