Diet can have a profound impact on moods, even for people with ADD and ADHD. Here’s what you should know to experiment with your or your child’s diet.
Researchers have been investigating the links between diet and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention-deficit disorder (ADD) for years. Unfortunately, the jury’s still out.
Many experts — and parents — say it’s worth experimenting with diet to see if it helps you or your child focus and feel less restless. Some children may be more susceptible to diet than others, and it is well established that a healthy, nutritious diet can have broad effects on mood and behavior for both children and adults. ADHD may come and go during a lifetime, according to a one study, so it’s worth paying attention to diet even when things are going well.
Cut out sugar
A simple first step is cutting sugar from your diet, says Sanford Silverman, PhD, a licensed psychologist and director of the Center for Attention Deficit and Learning Disorders in Scottsdale, Ariz. He has worked with adults and children with ADHD and ADD at his center for three decades.
Sugar probably doesn’t cause ADD or ADHD, but it seems to exacerbate symptoms, he says. Sugary cereals, juice boxes, and drinks with high fructose corn syrup, along with white bread, are the equivalent of a mood time bomb, producing a sugar high that is rapidly followed by an energy crash. This rapid fluctuation in blood glucose levels, Silverman says, increases hyperactivity and irritability.
Plus, there is evidence that “children experience more pronounced response to glucose overload than adults,” Silverman says, meaning they're more affected by sugar than adults are. Since adults and children with ADD and ADHD both have more, and more rapid, shifts in mood and emotional states than those without the condition — a characteristic called emotional lability — sugar only compounds the problem.
Avoid simple carbohydrates such as candy, corn syrup, honey, products with white flour, white rice, and potatoes without skin.
Test for symptoms
In general, to get a sense for whether certain foods are a problem, cut them out of your or your child’s diet for a period of two to three weeks. Then, gradually reintroduce foods, one item at a time. Watch carefully for mood and behavioral changes as you make these adjustments — and avoid any foods that seem to aggravate symptoms. (For more tips on creating a “washout” diet for ADD or ADHD to test food sensitivities, see a report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.)
Pack on the protein, especially at breakfast and lunch
Try eggs, nuts, beans, lentils, Greek yogurt, and lean meats and fish. These uber-healthy foods provide a multitude of health benefits in the form of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, poly- and monounsaturated fats, and oodles of other nutrients and antioxidants. The protein they contain will also boost brain power and help regulate blood sugar throughout the day. “With protein you can prevent those surges in blood sugar that cause more overactivity,” Silverman says. That’s “going to give you alertness and help neurotransmitters.”
Giving your child high-protein foods in the morning and as after-school snacks will improve his or her concentration and may help ADHD medications work longer.
There’s some evidence that children with attention deficits are short of certain essential fatty acids found in cold-water fish like salmon and sardines
It’s not always easy to coax children to eat fish, but you might try saying “Burger’s tonight!” and serve salmon burgers along with the familiar fixings like ketchup.
Increase complex carbohydrates
Include vegetables and some fruits, such as oranges, pears, apples, kiwi, and tangerines, in your diet. Eating those foods in the evening may help you or your child sleep better.
Watch out for poor appetite
Common ADD and ADHD medications can decrease appetite. Some adults and children with ADD or ADHD are too keyed up to take the time — they “don't even want to sit down and eat,” Silverman says. That’s a problem, he says, because “poor appetite is certainly going to exacerbate the ADD.”
Good nutrition is even more important when appetite is low. For both children and adults, “it's particularly important for them not to have just sugary foods because they're not eating as much.”
Eat for your brain
Oatmeal and other whole grains not only contain fiber, which helps keep blood sugar steady, but also “keep your brain fed longer,” Silverman says. “They're a source of vitamin E, B, potassium, and zinc — so you're getting better nutrition.” Meanwhile, high-antioxidant fruits like strawberries and blueberries “have been linked in studies to improved memory and brain functioning, concentration, and short-term memory,” he says.
Go low glycemic, and warm
A low-glycemic diet decreases blood sugar levels, which can have dramatic effects on mood and energy. Favor lean protein and fiber in the form of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Meanwhile, warm foods made with high-fiber vegetables, beans, and lentils can be calming and restorative. To benefit from these calming effects, add stews and soups to your menu. (But avoid comfort foods, as they tend to be fatty and sugary.)
February 28, 2022
Janet O’Dell, RN