Among all the natural treatments for ADHD — exercise, behavioral therapy, neurofeedback, nutrition changes, and more — eating healthy is one of the most popular among ADDitude readers. The problem? The research is inconclusive, and keeping a close watch on what you and your family eat is incredibly hard.
Nutrition is critical to our well being and health — to our brains and our bodies. But is eating healthy, specifically, a strategy for improving ADHD symptoms like hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity? In short, there is limited evidence to suggest so.
Despite a dearth of scientific consensus, implementing an “ADHD-friendly” nutrition plan is among the most popular natural treatment approaches among ADDitude readers, according to a 2017 survey of 4,000 adults and parents of children with ADHD. Roughly one quarter of survey respondents reported that they used dietary strategies ranging from avoiding sugars and artificial colors, to increasing protein, and following an elimination diet to try to treat ADHD symptoms.
Many respondents reported improvements in ADHD symptoms after making nutritional changes, but a great majority noted that changes in diet were only somewhat effective in addressing symptoms, despite their serious attempts to implement an ADHD nutrition plan. Regardless of whether they saw positive results, nearly all survey respondents agreed: Eating healthy is hard, especially when your ADHD brain craves dopamine (i.e. sugar and carbs), when your child is a picky eater, when your appetite is suppressed by other treatments, when your child is sensitive to food textures, when your food budget is limited, when you’re a busy and/or single parent with scant time for grocery shopping, and when life gets in the way.
Popular books and articles offering ‘quick and easy fixes’ do nothing to help when these ADHD realities get in the way. In fact, they can do more harm than good but ratcheting up the guilt:
[ Get This Free Download: What to Eat — And Avoid — to Improve ADHD Symptoms ] “Enforcing an ADHD diet was awful,” one parent wrote. “It became a full time job to plan, maintain, shop for, etc. and there were no positive results to observe.”
One adult reader wrote: “It was very helpful, but medication was still needed to manage behavior, and it was very restrictive and hard to maintain the diet. Small mistakes in eating would ruin all the hard work.”
“It was extremely difficult because the foods we were trying to avoid were the ones she craved and would eat,” another parent wrote. “She had such a poor appetite at times that we would give in just to get her to eat anything.”
It’s true that dietary changes may improve symptoms in some cases, but eating healthy is not a guaranteed cure for ADHD by any stretch. Research confirms that nutrition is no substitute for medication and other proven therapies. Eating Healthy by Cutting Sugar
Reducing sugar consumption was the most commonly-used approach by surveyed adults with ADHD and the second most common among caregivers. Many people with ADHD believe that sugar causes hyperactivity, inattention, and sluggishness, though the science here is thin.
“Sugar increases my fidgeting and my inability to pay attention,” wrote one adult survey-taker. Another said, “I have noticed a sharp decrease in my ability to focus when I drink beverages with processed sugar.” Parents of children with ADHD observed that consuming too much sugar contributed to their kids’ poor focus, and triggered hyperactivity, irritability, and “off the rails” behavior.
Some ADDitude readers found that decreasing sugar intake made a significant improvement in ADHD symptoms. Lowering sugar “keeps my energy levels even,” one person wrote, “which allows me to have sustained focus and concentration.” One parent reported that “limiting sugar helps with [my child’s] moodiness and impulsivity.”
[ Click to Download: Your Free Guide to Delicious (and ADHD-Friendly!) Eating ]
Many people who cut back on sugar in their diets often replace it with artificial sweeteners, but this was not the case with a lot of those surveyed. Instead, they avoided artificial sweeteners for the same reasons they avoided sugar. “I had better focus and better sleep after removing artificial sweeteners,” one person explained.
The hard reality of cutting sugar, however, was yet another struggle: “Sugar is a struggle to cut out,” one parent wrote to ADDitude . “Eliminating it makes my child very unhappy.”
“Too hard to stay off sugar now — but will retry someday,” an adult survey-taker wrote.
“It is very difficult for my child to stay away from sugar, but I definitely see behavioral changes when he has sugar” another parent wrote.
What Does Research Say About Sugar and ADHD?
Though many of the adults and caregivers surveyed seem convinced of sugar’s detrimental effects on ADHD symptoms, research on the topic is less black and white.
While some studies 1 2 in the 1980s and 1990s found a link between sugar intake and hyperactivity, most were unable to show causality between sugar intake and hyperactivity in children. 3 4
Researchers even found in one study that parents rated their children as more hyperactive when told they were given sugar, regardless of whether they actually ate any sugar. 5 A 2011 study, moreover, examined available research and concluded that “the inability to document an effect of added sugars on hyperactivity…has largely discredited the sugar hypothesis of ADHD.” 6
This is not to say that sugar doesn’t have an effect on the body. It is well documented that diets high in excess sugar are associated with a greater risk of illnesses and unhealthy outcomes, including cardiovascular diseases, weight gain, diabetes and more 7 . Keeping sugar intake at healthy levels, therefore, is beneficial for all. Eating Healthy by Increasing Protein
Protein is an essential macronutrient for healthy functioning of mind and body, one that is important to growth and development in children.
Many ADDitude readers who were surveyed reported that protein consumption optimizes the brain and sustains energy levels through the day. One survey respondent said that increasing protein consumption kept her child’s “extreme reactions more even.” Another parent noted that […]