As an integrative psychiatrist, I treat patients using principles of western medicine, alternative medicine, and a wide variety of lifestyle interventions. Because of this, I am often asked what dietary measures can be taken to treat ADHD.
As someone who has had ADHD myself, I know how difficult it can be for people who have this disorder to follow a specific diet. Luckily, benefits can be gained through our approach to food, rather than by following a strict diet. By eating in a way that stabilizes energy levels, we can enhance our ability to focus, and have more drive to follow-through on tasks. (Note: given the serious nature of this disorder, diet may not replace other treatment options, such as medication, though it can be a helpful adjunct.)
While I don't believe that food causes this disorder, I do believe that some food choices can exacerbate the symptoms, such as difficulty with concentration, low motivation, hyperactivity, impulsivity, feelings of restlessness, and emotional reactivity. Changing the way we eat can make a difference with these symptoms, whether or not they are caused by ADHD.
From a dietary standpoint, our brain’s stability depends on keeping our insulin levels stable. Foods that are too easily turned to sugar, or sugars themselves, will cause a surge of energy followed by a crash. During the surge, we can see hyperactivity and impulsivity in children and in adults we see more of a feeling of restlessness and emotional reactivity. During the crash, we see decreased concentration, low motivation, and difficulty with follow-through.
By changing the diet to prevent this emotional roller coaster, we can expect to have less of the agitated restlessness and impulsivity and more of a feeling of calm and stability. Concentration is easier and we can devote more time to tasks, leading to greater follow-through.
In order to avoid these surges and crashes, look for foods that do not contain sugar and are not easily digested. A cracker, for example, may not contain sugar, but it starts breaking down as soon as saliva touches it. If a food starts to break down in your mouth (think bread, candy, sodas, and most baked goods), it's typically not a great choice.
So what can we eat?
Try to eat foods that remain close to the way they came from nature, rather than processed foods. Fruits and vegetables are much better for you than processed fruit snacks, for example. Brown rice is a better bet than white bread or pasta. Nuts are a good choice to have on hand, as they make an easy, filling snack.
What about beverages?
In general, water is the best choice. Sugary drinks are the worst for causing these surges and crashes and should be avoided. Coffee is often used by those with ADHD to help with concentration. Though it can help with focus, it can also promote a feeling of restlessness and can cause irritability as it wears off.
It may be difficult at first to make this switch, so take baby steps.
I recommend taking it slowly, substituting a new food for a problem food every few days. For example, if you eat cereal for breakfast, find the one with the highest amount of fiber and lowest amount of sugar and substitute it for whatever you are currently eating. Making many small efforts to make what you are eating a little bit better can go a long way. Creating a series of shifts is much more effective in the long run for someone with ADHD.
ADHDers often jump into a new diet, with the best of intentions, only to lose interest in the coming days or weeks. Luckily, I've seen from my own experience and from those of my clients, that keeping these guidelines in mind is easy to follow and makes a big difference.
If you are concerned about ADHD, in yourself or a loved one, you are advised to seek treatment with a healthcare professional.