October 28, 2020

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The best diet for people with ADHD: Foods to eat and avoid

8 min read
  • The best diet for ADHD includes foods like omega fatty acids, protein, and B vitamins.
  • Polyphenols, which are found in fruits like berries or starchy vegetables like spinach, are antioxidants that can counteract oxidative stress in the brain and may help reduce the symptoms of ADHD.
  • People with ADHD should also avoid foods with preservatives and food colorings, as these have been shown to worsen ADHD.
  • This article was medically reviewed by Zlatin Ivanov, MD, who is certified in psychiatry and addiction psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology at Psychiatrist NYC.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a mental health condition that affects 4.4% of adults and has been diagnosed in 9.4% of children in the US. People with ADHD may experience symptoms such as trouble concentrating, restlessness and impulsivity, or struggling to complete tasks.

Though ADHD is typically treated with stimulants like Adderall, research shows that the right diet can also help improve symptoms — and the wrong diet can worsen them. 

Here’s what to know about what you should and should not eat if you have ADHD.

Foods to eat with ADHD

ADHD is a disorder that is thought to be caused by imbalances in brain chemistry, particularly neurotransmitters. There are many foods and nutrients that are beneficial for proper brain function and health, and thus beneficial for ADHD. Some of these foods include:

Omega fatty acids 

Omega fatty acids, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, are beneficial for brain health, says Uma Naidoo, MD, author of This Is Your Brain on Food and Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.

She says that omega-3s are beneficial for two reasons: 

  • They’re anti-inflammatory and lower neuroinflammation, which is an inflammatory response in the brain that has been linked to various mental health disorders.
  • Since omega-3s help make up cell membranes, they can help neurotransmitters in your brain function better, Naidoo says. 

A 2017 systematic review published in the Journal of Lipids found that those who consumed omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids experienced ADHD symptom improvement, including less hyperactivity, better ability to pay attention, and less impulsivity. 

While most people think omega-3 fatty acids are synonymous with fish, you can get it from other vegetarian or vegan sources, such as avocados and nuts, says Zhaoping Li, MD, PhD,  director of the UCLA Center of Human Nutrition and Chief of the Division of Clinical Nutrition.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the adequate daily intake of Omega-3 fatty acids is 1.6 grams in men and 1.1 grams in women. Some foods high in omega-3 are:

  • Seafood
    • Salmon, 1.24 g in 3 oz
    • Herring, 0.94 g in 3 oz
    • Sardines, 0.74 g in 3 oz
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
    • Chia 5.06 g in 1 oz
    • Flax 2.35 g in 1 tbsp 
  • Oils
    • Flaxseed oil, 7.26 g in 1 tbsp
    • Canola oil, 1.28 g in 1 tbsp
    • Soybean oil .92 g in 1 tbsp

Protein 

Li says it’s crucial for the brain to get adequate protein for proper function. That’s because protein is broken down into amino acids, which help the brain produce neurotransmitters and neuromodulators — chemical messengers in the brain. This is beneficial for ADHD since it’s believed that ADHD is in part due to imbalances of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. 

Naidoo says that eating breakfast is non-negotiable for people with ADHD, and that protein should be incorporated into breakfast. 

“It was shown that individuals who ate a healthy breakfast were more alert, attentive and could process information more rapidly,” says Naidoo. “So skipping meals can worsen these symptoms possibly related to lower blood sugar and the brain needs energy through the food we eat in order to function properly.”

Incorporating protein into breakfast to get those amino acids and brain function boost sets your day up for success.

Some foods high in protein include:

  • Meat and poultry
  • Seafood
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Beans
  • Peas

With meats, Li says to eat quality meat that hasn’t been fed antibiotics or hormones because any remaining antibiotics in the meat may change the gut microbiota and could worsen ADHD.  

Polyphenols

Polyphenols are compounds that are natural antioxidants, and they are found in many fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants help prevent damage from free radicals, which are compounds that can bind to healthy cells and damage the DNA and proteins inside of them

The imbalance between the antioxidants and free radicals in your body is known as oxidative stress. Researchers believe that oxidative stress in the brain could be linked to ADHD, according to a  2018 review published in Nutrients. This review determined that polyphenol supplements such as Pycnogenol can counteract oxidative stress in the brain, thereby possibly improving ADHD symptoms. 

Naidoo says some foods high in polyphenols are:

  • Fruit, especially berries
    • Blackberries 260 mg per 100g
    • Strawberries 235 mg per 100g
    • Blueberries 836 mg per 100g
  • Colorful non-starchy vegetables 
    • Spinach 119 mg per 100g
    • Yellow onions 74 mg per 100g
    • Shallots 113 mg per 100g
  • Cloves 15,188 mg per 100g
  • Cocoa powder 3448 mg per 100g
  • Dark chocolate 1664 mg per 100g
  • Green tea 89 per mg 100g

B vitamins

B vitamins are important for brain health, since they can improve brain chemistry and support mental health function. Naidoo says that they are particularly helpful for people with ADHD, since they can support the functioning of neurotransmitters.

A 2017 review published in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine found that deficiencies in micronutrients, including B vitamins, particularly vitamin B6, are linked to ADHD in children. Blood testing can be conducted to learn if you are deficient in these vitamins along with any others. 

Some foods high in B vitamins, particularly B6 and B12 include:

  • Meats
    • Chicken breast .5 mg B6 per 3 oz, 29% DV and .3 mcg B12 per 3 oz, 13% DV
    • Turkey .4 mg B6 per 3 oz, 25% DV
    • Beef (sirloin) 1.4 mcg B12 per 3 oz, 58% DV
    • Beef liver .9 mg B6 per 3 oz 53% DV and 70.7 mcg B12, 2,946% DV
  • Seafood 
    • Tuna .9 mg B6 per 3 oz 53% DV and 2.5 mcg B12 per 3 oz, 104% DV
    • Salmon .6 mg B6 per 3 oz, 35% DV and 4.8 mcg B12 per 3 oz, 200% DV
    • Clams 84.1 mcg B12 per 3 oz, 3,504% DV 
  • Eggs .6 mcg B12 per 1 egg, 25% DV
  • Milk 1.2 mcg B12 per 1 cup 50% DV
  • Nuts (mix) .1 mg B6 per 1 oz, 6% DV
  • Chickpeas 1.1 mg B6 per 1 cup, 65% DV
  • Spinach 1.1 mg B6 per 1/2 cup, 65% DV

Foods to limit or avoid with ADHD 

Some ingredients and food groups may worsen ADHD symptoms in certain individuals. Some of these include:

Chemicals and preservatives 

Though the reason for this isn’t clear, some studies have found a link between food additives, including preservatives, and worsened hyperactivity in children without ADHD. 

Naidoo recommends ADHD patients steer clear of processed foods, packaged foods, and frozen foods since these are very likely to contain preservatives and stabilizers. 

She urges everyone to look at food labels carefully. “If there are names you can’t pronounce and there’s a large number of [ingredients], then you know to skip it and try to get towards whole healthy foods,” says Naidoo.

Li seconds this, adding: “Any chemicals or artificially generated compounds are of concern.”

There’s no concrete evidence about preservatives alone worsening ADHD, as evidence is anecdotal rather than through studies. But both experts agree that people with ADHD should avoid them. 

Certain food colorings

There’s a bit more evidence the negative effect of food coloring on ADHD symptoms. Three food colorings of particular concern are:

  • Red #40 
  • FD&C Yellow #5 
  • FD&C Yellow #6 

These are found in foods like snack foods, cereal, baked goods, sauces, crackers, and beverages.

A 2012 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry looked at various studies regarding elimination diets consisting of eliminating foods with dyes. The researchers estimated that 33% of children with ADHD responded to this type of elimination diet, experiencing reduced symptoms, proving it may be beneficial for some. 

“In the US, the most popular food dyes are Red #40, Yellow #5 and Yellow #6.  The three make up 90% of all the food dye used in the US,” says Li. This is why they are the most commonly studied and believed to have harmful effects. 

In Europe, products containing these dyes require a warning label. In the US, they do not. You can check the ingredient list on the labels to see if foods have these ingredients.

Gluten

Gluten is not inherently “bad” or harmful for people with ADHD. However, Naidoo says if someone with ADHD has celiac disease (an immune disease in which gluten damages the small intestine) or a gluten sensitivity, then eating gluten may worsen their ADHD symptoms. 

A small 2006 study (132 people) published in the Journal of Attention Disorders looked at people with celiac disease and found that after six months of a gluten-free diet, there was a noticeable improvement in people exhibiting ADHD symptoms, such as hyperactivity.

If you aren’t sure if you may have a gluten insensitivity or celiac disease, speak to your doctor who can conduct testing to help you get answers.  

Dairy

You don’t need to be lactose intolerant to experience troubles from dairy. Naidoo says that dairy, or specifically, casein (a protein in milk), is a culprit for possibly worsening ADHD symptoms. 

There are multiple types of casein, but the one that may affect ADHD is beta-casein, which has two forms, A1 and A2. It is believed that A1 is the main culprit with dairy.

A small 2016 study (45 participants) published in the Nutrition Journal studied the difference between those who drank milk that had A1 and A2, and those who drank milk that only contained A2. The participants who drank the milk with A1 and A2 had slower cognitive processing and less accuracy than those who drank the milk only containing A2, leading the researchers to conclude that people with ADHD may want to avoid the A1 protein. More thorough research is needed to know if this applies to a broader population of ADHD patients.

Naidoo says that an alternative to dairy can be any type of nut milk. There’s also A2 milk, which she says is becoming more widely available at grocery stores. However, other dairy products such as cheese do not have the same option to isolate the A2 protein, so you may have to make more drastic diet changes regarding other dairy products like cheeses, ice creams, and yogurts. 

When to see a doctor

 A diet of whole foods rich in omega 3s, protein, polyphenols, and B vitamins is great for general health, and may also help people with ADHD control their symptoms. However, it’s important to make sure that you’re also receiving the correct medical treatment.

Speak to your doctor so they can help you work on getting your symptoms under control through the safest, healthiest means possible. 

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