The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than seven percent of children and four to six percent of adults have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is a brain disorder with no known cure. Millions of people with this condition struggle to organize and complete tasks.
The name “ADHD” may bring to mind the stereotypical image of kids bouncing off walls and acting crazy, but in reality, the condition is much more than that. ADHD makes schoolwork and social development harder for kids, they might not be able to concentrate on lessons or finish homework. They may be careless, not listen well and may have emotional outbursts in class & at home.
Adults also need to minimize ADHD symptoms to be able to have mutual relationships and satisfying careers. Focusing on and finishing projects is necessary at work, and bosses expect workers to be able to find their eyeglasses, laptop computers, and budget reports. Excessive fidgeting or interrupting disrupts meetings, and may be embarrassing.
Diet alone may not be the driving force behind the multiple behavioral and cognitive symptoms that plague children and adults with ADD or ADHD, however, several studies have renewed interest in whether certain foods and additives might affect particular symptoms in a subset of children with ADHD.
Scientists may not have a cure yet, but they have found some interesting connections between ADHD behaviors and certain foods. The good news is you can boost traditional approaches to symptom management by eating a healthy, balanced diet, and notice a decrease in ADHD behaviors by avoiding certain foods.
Signs and Symptoms
A person is diagnosed with ADHD if they have at least 6 symptoms from the following categories, lasting for at least 2 months. In diagnosing children, the symptoms must appear before age 7, and pose a significant challenge to everyday functioning in at least 2 areas of life (usually home and school). Most children do not show all the symptoms, and they may be different in boys and girls (boys may be more hyperactive and girls more inattentive).
- Fails to pay close attention to details or makes careless mistakes
- Has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities
- Does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
- Does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish tasks
- Has difficulty organizing tasks and activities
- Avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort (such as school work)
- Loses things needed for tasks or activities
- Is easily distracted
- Is forgetful in daily activities
Hyperactivity & Impulsivity
- Fidgets with hands or feet or squirms when seated
- Does not remain seated when expected to
- Runs or climbs excessively in inappropriate situations (in teens or adults, may be feelings of restlessness)
- Has difficulty playing or engaging in leisure activities quietly
- Acts as if “driven by a motor”
- Talks excessively
- Blurts out answers before questions are completed
- Has difficulty waiting his or her turn
- Interrupts or intrudes on others
The Chemical Culprits
Artificial Colorings & Additives
Since the 1970s, researchers have investigated whether the synthetic dyes, flavors, and preservatives found in many commercially prepared and “junk” foods might contribute to hyperactivity or other symptoms of ADHD.
Researchers have found that there may be a link between food dyes and hyperactivity. Be sure to check ingredient lists of foods for artificial coloring. The FDA requires FD&C Yellow No. 5, also called tartrazine, and FD&C Red No. 40, also called allura, to be listed on food packages.
Other dyes may or may not be listed, but be cautious with anything colored that you put in your mouth. BE WARY OF: toothpaste, vitamins, fruit and sports drinks, hard candy, fruit-flavored cereals, barbecue sauce, canned fruit, fruit snacks, gelatin powders, cake mixes.
Further, when a scientific study combined synthetic food dyes with the preservative sodium benzoate, it found increased hyperactivity. You might find sodium benzoate in carbonated drinks, salad dressings, and condiments. Other chemical preservatives to look out for are BHA, BHT, sodium nitrate, and TBHQ. Experiment by avoiding these additives one at a time, to see if behaviors improve.
Simple Carbs & Sugars
Eating simple processed carbohydrates, like white bread or waffles, is almost the same as eating sugar! Your body digests these processed carbs into glucose (sugar) so quickly that the effect is virtually the same as eating sugar from a spoon.
Limiting sugar in your family’s diet just makes sense. Eating fewer simple sugars, look out for any kind of sugar or syrup on food labels. Candy is loaded with sugar and artificial colors, which is a bad combination when it comes to ADHD. Both of these common ingredients have been shown to promote ADHD symptom namely hyperactivity, in studies.
Soda & Energy Drinks
If you have ADHD, consider eliminating soda, even if you don’t have ADHD, you should give up soda because it’s terrible for us. These sweet drinks often have many of the same sugars and sweeteners that make candy a bad choice. Soda also 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.
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. They are loaded with sugar, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, caffeine, and other stimulants.
Surprising Items To Avoid
When does an apple a day not keep the doctor away? When the person eating the apple is sensitive to salicylate. This is a natural substance abundant in red apples and other healthy foods like almonds, cranberries, grapes, and tomatoes. In the 1970s, Dr. Benjamin Feingold eliminated artificial dyes and flavors and salicylates from the diets of his hyperactive patients. He claimed 30 to 50 percent of them improved.
Like salicylates, allergens are in healthy foods, but if your body is sensitive to them, they can affect brain functions, triggering hyperactivity or inattentiveness. You might find it helpful to stop eating, one at a time, the top 8 food allergens:
- Wheat, Barley Rye (Gluten)
- Cow’s Milk
- Tree Nuts
- Fish & Shellfish
Tracking food-behavior connections makes your elimination experiment more effective.
Frozen Fruits & Vegetables
Although fruits and vegetables are healthy choices, some frozen varieties can contain artificial colors, so check all labels carefully. Also foods treated with pesticides for insect control have been shown to cause neurologic-based behavioral problems that mimic ADHD and many other behavior problems
Foods That Help ADHD
Foods rich in protein like lean beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, soy, and low-fat dairy products can have beneficial effects on ADD & ADHD symptoms. Protein-rich foods are used by the body to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals released by brain cells to communicate with each other. Protein can prevent surges in blood sugar, which increase hyperactivity, and when you combine protein with complex carbs that are high in fiber and low in sugar , you help you or your child manage ADHD symptoms better during the day, whether you’re taking medication or not.
Zinc & Magnesium
These are two minerals that can play an important role in controlling ADHD symptoms. Both are essential to normal health, and a surprising number of children and adults, with and without ADHD, don’t get enough of them. Zinc regulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, and improves the brain’s response to dopamine.
Magnesium is also used to make neurotransmitters involved in attention and concentration, and it has a calming effect on the brain. At least 25% of the children are low in zinc.
The body with inadequate fat supply in the food sources is essentially like a car engine running on only two cylinders. Omega-3’s are healthy fats that are essential for normal brain function, and can improve several aspects of ADHD behavior:
They are called “essential” fats we must get from food because our bodies cannot make them. Research shows that children with ADHD have lower blood levels of omega-3’s than kids without ADHD, so if your child isn’t a dedicated fish eater, you’ll want to supplement with fish oil to achieve healthy levels.
A number of studies on omega-3s and ADHD have shown a positive effect. One 2009 study from Sweden, 25% of children who had daily doses of omega-3s had a significant decrease in symptoms after three months and by six months, almost 50% experienced better symptom management. This is an impressive result for a safe nutritional supplement with few side effects.
How Much Omega-3 & What Form?
The two main omega-3 fatty acids contained in supplements are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). It appears that most benefits are derived from omega-3 products that contain more EPA than DHA. It is recommended to get a total dose of 700 to 1,000 mg a day for younger children, and 1,500 to 2,000 mg for older children.
You can get Omega-3s from salmon, tuna, and other cold-water fish, as well as from some nuts, seeds & oils.
Both a protein source and rich in omega-3 fatty acids that are key for brain health. Eating salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring & scallops lowers the risk of dementia and stroke and slows mental decline. Plus, these items play a vital role in enhancing memory, especially as we get older. For brain and heart health, eat two servings of fish weekly.
Research in animals shows that blueberries can help protect the brain from the damage caused by free radicals and may reduce the effects of age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Studies also show that diets rich in blueberries improved both the learning and muscle function of aging rats, making them mentally equal to much younger rats.
Nuts, Seeds & Dark Chocolate
Nuts and seeds are good sources of the antioxidant vitamin E, which is linked to less cognitive decline as you age. Dark chocolate also has other powerful antioxidant properties, and it contains natural stimulants like caffeine, which can enhance focus. Enjoy up to an ounce a day of nuts and dark chocolate to get all the benefits you need without excess calories or sugar. Try eating more walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds and cacao.
Avocados & Whole Grains
Every organ in the body depends on blood flow, especially the heart and brain. A diet high in whole grains and fruits like avocados can cut the risk of heart disease and lower bad cholesterol. This reduces your risk of plaque buildup and enhances blood flow, offering a simple, tasty way to fire up brain cells.
Whole grains, like popcorn and whole wheat, also contribute dietary fiber and vitamin E. Though avocados have fat, it’s the good-for-you, monounsaturated fat that helps with healthy blood flow.
Eat Breakfast to Fuel Your Brain
Tempted to skip breakfast? Studies have found that eating breakfast may improve short-term memory and attention. Students who eat it tend to perform better than those who don’t. Foods at the top of researchers’ brain-fuel list include high-fiber whole grains, dairy, and fruits. Just don’t overeat; researchers also found high-calorie breakfasts appear to hinder concentration.
Try breakfasts and lunches high in protein, complex carbs, and fiber like oatmeal and a glass of soy, coconut or almond milk, or peanut butter on a piece of whole grain bread. The sugars from these carbohydrates are digested more slowly, because protein, fiber, and fat eaten together result in a more gradual and sustained blood sugar release. The result? A child can concentrate and behave better at school, and an adult can make it through that long morning meeting.