Impact of Diet on ADHD

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Attention-deficit/hyperactivity-disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is also classified as a psychiatric condition. According to Lang and colleagues, ADHD consists of “behavioral and neuropathological deficits” that cause impaired attention, impulsive behaviors, and hyperactivity, which are more easily identified in children.

Most research pertaining to ADHD focuses on children and adolescents. However, ADHD symptoms do persist throughout an individual’s life producing limitations in social functioning, professional obligations, and relationships, but managing symptoms lessen these effects.

There are a variety of treatment methods that have shown benefit for individuals with ADHD, such as pharmaceuticals, psychotherapies, behavioral therapies, healthy lifestyle habits, and complementary alternative medicine (CAM). CAM therapies are often explored as part of a holistic approach for those with ADHD, which can also include behavioral or lifestyle interventions, such as dietary changes. 

Impact of Diet on ADHD

Diet can have a significant impact on some individuals with ADHD. Certain food consumption may have positive effects on ADHD symptoms, while others have an impact that can increase symptoms. 

Great interest has been taken in the influence of dietary habits on ADHD symptoms in children. Researchers discovered that dietary changes may aid in the management of symptoms. Some experts believe that focusing on diet as a practice to include with other treatment methods, such as pharmaceuticals, may be a useful addition to an individual’s treatment plan.

What Is An ADHD Diet?

ADHD diet is a specialized dietary practice that can help with managing ADHD symptoms. This could include limiting the consumption of certain foods, eliminating foods that may exacerbate symptoms, and implementing dietary supplements or foods that can benefit those with ADHD.

The goal is to increase the intake of foods that offer benefits to individuals with ADHD, like omega-3 fatty acids supplements, and limit or eliminate the consumption of foods that trigger symptoms, such as lactose or gluten. These types of dietary changes may reduce symptoms of ADHD. 

Benefits of an ADHD Diet

Certain dietary changes may aid in the reduction of the following symptoms:

Certain dietary changes may improve the following functions:

Types of ADHD Diets

The two most popular types of ADHD dietary practices are the use of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) supplements and elimination diets. 

Polyunsaturated fatty acids

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), which are nutritious dietary fats found in nuts, fruits, vegetables, and oils extracted from seeds and fish, contain nutrients necessary for the body’s maintenance. Much research has been done regarding the many health benefits of increasing the daily intake of omega fatty acids, mostly in the form of dietary supplements.

Recent studies have demonstrated some evidence regarding the effects of omega fatty acid supplements on ADHD symptoms. Some research has looked at both omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, but most studies have only examined the benefits of omega-3 in children with ADHD.

An article that examined several studies on omega-3/6 PUFAs found that they do reduce hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity. They also appeared to improve memory, reading, and vision.

A study showed that a diet supplemented with fish oils appeared to help ADHD symptoms in at least some children and that it may offer some benefits in academic performance.

Another literature review conducted a meta-analysis of studies that examined the benefits of diet interventions including PUFA supplements in ADHD. Although some benefits were present, the results were not significant enough for PUFAs to be considered an effective treatment method on their own.

Researcher Heilskov and colleagues similarly analyzed dietary interventions in children with ADHD. Fish oil supplementation held some promise, but they believe further research must be conducted to gain more understanding of its effects.

PUFAs may offer benefits to some with ADHD and decrease certain symptoms, but research currently does not support this being an intervention that can be used as a primary treatment. Implementing PUFAs into a treatment plan can work along with other treatments like pharmaceuticals in reducing symptoms. There is also the possibility of PUFA supplements helping to allow for a decrease in the dose of pharmaceutical treatments.

Elimination Diets

An elimination diet consists of the elimination of foods that may exacerbate ADHD symptoms. There are different kinds of elimination diets. Below you will find various elimination diets that are believed to aid in the management of symptoms. 

  • 6-food: 6-food elimination diet focuses on eliminating the most common foods people seem to be allergic to like soy, milk, wheat, nuts, shellfish, and eggs, to identify any possible allergens.
  • Gluten-free: A gluten-free diet is the elimination of gluten. There is a correlation between ADHD and celiac disease. Researchers suspect that a gluten-free diet may lessen symptoms for some individuals with ADHD if they have a gluten intolerance. A study that investigated the role of ADHD in participants between the ages of 3 and 57 with celiac disease, determined that gluten-free diets have the potential to quickly reduce ADHD symptoms. 
  • Artificial food color (AFC): An expert in the field of neurodevelopmental disorders, Dr. Ben Feingold, believed that artificial food coloring was a major cause of ADHD symptoms and developed the artificial food color (AFC) elimination diet, or the Feingold diet. Despite some anecdotal reports, there is currently little evidence that this diet improves behavioral issues in ADHD.
  • A few foods (AFF): “A “few foods diet” (also called an oligoantigenic diet) restricts a person’s diet to only a few less commonly consumed foods (e.g., lamb/venison, quinoa/rice, pear, and others with low allergenic potential).” This type of diet should be facilitated and monitored by a health professional, such as a dietician.

Researcher Pelsser and colleagues' meta-analysis explored multiple ADHD diets. They discovered that the AFF diet was more substantial in its impact than PUFA supplements in certain subgroups of children. 

A literature review determined that eliminating or reducing the use of certain food lessened symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Although elimination diets appeared to have some benefit, researchers reported that these studies had “shortcomings” and suggest more research be conducted on elimination diets to support these findings.

Elimination diets need further study to better determine in what ways they may be helpful for those with ADHD. It is important to speak with a medical professional before beginning an elimination diet to rule out any potential medical issues that might be associated with eliminating a specific food type. 

A Word From Verywell

ADHD diets show promise, but more research must be done to fully understand the role that diet plays in the management of ADHD symptoms.A healthy diet offers a multitude of health benefits for all people, so dietary changes are always an excellent start when establishing a healthy lifestyle routine.

Diet is part of a holistic approach that can be helpful to individuals exhibiting ADHD symptoms. Dietary changes will not have the same effect on some as it does on others. It is important to consider this when creating a dietary plan. Dietary interventions will not be sufficient to manage ADHD on their own, and other treatments and interventions will generally be necessary.

An ADHD diet works well with other treatments but may not present remarkable changes to symptoms on its own. It is important to first discuss dietary changes with a medical professional to get an expert’s opinion on what may be the best ADHD diet to help with symptoms or to implement into an already established treatment plan. 

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Tiara Blain
Tiara Blain, MA, is a freelance writer for Verywell Mind. She is a health writer and researcher passionate about the mind-body connection.