Understanding the Impact of Diet on ADHD

You’ve read the news stories, watched the talk shows, and explored all the relevant blogs you and find. Now you need the facts: Does diet play a role in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? If so, how much direct impact does it have?

After all, whether you live with ADHD or you have a child who does, you know that it has far-reaching effects – from the child who darts around the room with endless energy to the high school student who can’t focus long enough to complete simple assignments. You want to do everything possible to manage this poorly-understood disorder, including eating the right foods and avoiding the wrong ones. Following are several frequently asked questions about how diet may (or may not) trigger or exacerbate ADHD symptoms:

Do food dyes increase hyperactivity?

The question of the role food dyes might play in this disorder is one of the current “hot” ADHD issues. Unfortunately, the answer is not yet completely clear. Some studies suggest that specific food dyes can increase hyperactive behavior in children. For example, a 2007 study conducted by the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency found that kids who consumed drinks containing dyes showed more hyperactivity than those drinking beverages without dyes.[1] While the European Union has put warning labels on foods containing some artificial colors, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not yet determined if these additives cause hyperactivity.

Can food preservatives cause ADHD symptoms?

Sodium benzoate is a preservative used to stifle the growth of microorganisms. Often used in fruit juices and carbonated beverages, it’s come under fire for potentially triggering ADHD symptoms. A small pilot study of college students suggests that it may make symptoms worse.[2] The results of the UK study that examined food dyes also suggested that sodium benzoate may play a contributing role in increasing symptoms of ADHD. To date, though, no large scale studies have been published to indicate whether sodium benzoate plays a definite role in ADHD symptoms.

Does too much sugar cause kids to be hyperactive and impulsive?

Sugar – especially the processed kind – does play a role in children’s activity levels regardless of whether they live with ADHD or not. Why? Consuming sugary foods and drinks triggers a rapid rise in blood glucose levels. That spike can give a jolt of energy to any child (or adult, for that matter). However, the National Institutes of Health has evaluated the research related to sugar’s effect on ADHD and found, overall, that sugar itself doesn’t appear to cause hyperactivity in children with ADHD.[3]

Will artificial sweeteners trigger ADHD symptoms?

Just like sugar, artificial sweeteners like aspartame do have an effect on the body’s blood glucose level. However, the jury is still out on whether it causes ADHD symptoms to flare up. One study that compared children given either sugar or a sugar substitute found no significant difference in the learning ability or behavior between the two groups.[3]

Does caffeine make children more hyper?

Common wisdom would say that, as a stimulant, caffeine is an ADHD diet no-no. However, prescription stimulants are used to treat ADHD and some studies suggest that caffeine helps non-ADHD adults focus better. Thus, researchers are starting to investigate caffeine’s potential role as a treatment for this disorder.

A study of rats, an animal that generally displays hyperactivity and a poor attention span, found that caffeinated rats performed better on tests than normal rats.[4] No research using human participants has been published to date, however. It’s important to remember that caffeine is a stimulant that can create dependence, so it’s a smart move to talk with a medical or mental health professional before adding caffeine to an ADHD diet.

Can a healthy diet help keep ADHD symptoms under control?

While research doesn’t yet have all the answers regarding which foods cause or worsen ADHD symptoms, we do know that building a healthy body lays the foundation for building a healthy mind. With that in mind, following are several helpful dietary tips for people with ADHD:

  1. Get plenty of healthy proteins: Quality protein sources, like chicken, beans, cheese, and nuts, don’t just nourish your muscles; they nourish your brain as well. Because protein can improve your ability to focus, it makes a great before- or after-school snack. Remember to stay away from unhealthy sources of protein, like fatty or processed meats.
  2. Increase your fatty acid intake: Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for optimal brain function. This natural nutrient is found in fatty fish like tuna and salmon, nuts and seeds, and eggs from pastured chickens (i.e. chickens that eat a natural diet). Some research suggests that children who take an Omega-3 supplement have less anxiety and better cognitive ability.[5] Reduce sugary foods: It doesn’t matter whether you have ADHD or not; eating fewer sugar-laden foods is always good for your health. Make candy, sugary drinks, and baked items, like muffins or cupcakes, only occasional treats. Instead, satisfy your sweet tooth with fresh fruit.
  3. Eat regularly: A kid in full-fledged hyperactivity mode has a hard time sitting down for a meal. He or she might be a whirl of energy for hours, only to crash and binge on a big meal after becoming ravenous. That makes it critical to set up regular meal and snack times as part of your child’s daily routine. Eating regular, healthy meals throughout the day will help even out blood glucose levels and eliminate the peaks and valleys that negatively affect behavior.
  4. Supplement with a multivitamin: Mental health professionals often recommend that people with ADHD take a vitamin and mineral supplement every day. This ensures that you’ll get many of the nutritional elements your body needs to function at its maximum level, especially if meals are irregular or less than ideal. Just remember that a multivitamin is for supplementation only; it’s not meant to be a crutch for an unhealthy diet.

Still not sure what to do?

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is a complex condition, but it’s one that can be successfully treated with the guidance of a mental health professional. To learn more about how a quality diet will help you or your child, talk to someone who specializes in nutrition about developing a simple and doable ADHD diet. By giving your body the fuel it needs, you’ll reap the benefits of a healthier mind as well.

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