Many experts believe that there are foods to avoid with ADHD; it’s said that what people eat can actually impact or exacerbate ADHD symptoms.
Mental health experts are often asked if this actually the case, and while research is continually being conducted to find out definitely if diet worsens or brings on ADHD symptoms, professionals urge parents of kids with ADHD (or adults with ADHD) to consider the elimination of certain foods and the consumption of certain foods.
“It seems to be a controversial topic,” admits John, the father of 11-year-old Jonas, who has ADHD. “Our doctor was neutral on the idea, but admitted that he’d had other patients who found relief from some symptoms with specific foods. We saw a nutritionist who was adamant food is a major part of symptom relief. And we’ve talked to other parents (at Jonas’ school) who found success as well.
“I guess for us, the greatest testimonial is Jonas’ own. We weren’t going to wait for a published journal to say, ‘Yes, food definitely impacts ADHD,’ when switching out or getting rid of certain foods was a safe option… it wasn’t just an opportunity to test it, it was also a way to get Jonas to eat healthier anyway.
“It’s not one of those strict, rigid diets that says, ‘You must eat this, this and this at this time,’” adds John. “It’s more like, ‘Try eliminating this and see if your child’s behavior improves.’ And you know what, it works.”
First, a background
In the 1970s, a San Francisco-based pediatric allergist named Benjamin Feingold suggested an “elimination diet.” He recommended discarding food that contained dyes, sweeteners and preservatives, as well as other foods, like fruits and vegetables that contain salicylates (a chemical related to aspirin). These natural foods are only eliminated at the start of the diet, but are reintroduced later and tested for tolerance.
Feingold believed that highly antigenic foods, which are known to be associated with intolerances and allergies, could negatively impact kids with ADHD and their behavior. In the beginning, he wrote that even a single bite of a “banned” food product might trigger a symptom or undesirable behavior, but the Feingold Association today says that such an inflexible approach to the diet isn’t necessary.
Parents who tried out the Feingold diet reported success. Even though stimulant prescriptions surged in popularity over the next ten years following Feingold’s suggestions, and initial results from effective studies proved inconclusive, many parents of children with ADHD took Feingold’s suggestions to heart – and were thrilled with the outcome.
Today, there continues to be great interest from parents and experts alike in the study of dietary modifications and interventions for kids (and adults) with ADHD. The University of Southampton conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled study involving 3-year-olds, 8-year-olds and 9-year-olds who consumed foods that contained artificial dyes and preservatives, and found that those foods were associated with hyperactive behavior.
It’s important to note that doctors have long believed, like Feinstein, that certain foods worsen ADHD symptoms or produces behavior that looks like ADHD in children who do not have the disorder. Food doesn’t, however cause ADHD.
Other studies have suggested that kids with ADHD are deficient in essential fatty acids, but there are not yet any conclusive reports that an omega-3 fatty acid supplement actually improves behavior. Many dieticians, then, are suggesting a well-balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, lean meat, whole grains, beans and fish (but make sure to ask your ADHD dietician or nutritionist for the best types of fish for ADHD).
So what foods should we avoid to calm my hyperactive child?
Is there a diet for a hyperactive child? Not in the traditional sense. But in addition to make sure the above foods are included in your child’s daily diet, here are some foods to avoid:
Candy. Oh, boy. Between kids sharing sweets during recess, cupcakes being distributed at Girl Scouts, and the copious amounts of candies and chocolate in rotation from Halloween to New Year’s Day, it’s a challenge to turn anyone off sugar.
However, studies by Yale University and the University of South Carolina have shown that the more sugar consumed by a hyperactive child, the more symptoms worsen and increase. They also found that in kids with ADHD, sugar consumption increases inattention and distraction.
“When we first started doing the elimination thing, it was right around his birthday, which is in September,” shares John. “That’s a stone’s throw away from Halloween! My wife and I thought, ‘Man, we’re either throwing ourselves into something crazy or this is going to be the best holiday season ever.’”
John followed his nutritionist’s suggestion and began eliminating sugar from Jonas’ diet slowly. For breakfast, they quietly replaced the sugary cereals with scrambled eggs, oatmeal and honey, and threw out sugar for Stevia, a natural sweetener. Over the course of two weeks, John and his wife removed as much sugar as possible.
On the 15th day, John permitted Jonas to have a small amount of sugar, stirring a teaspoon of sugar (instead of Stevia) into his oatmeal. Almost immediately, John says, it was as if a switch to a motor had been turned on.
“He’d been significantly calmer the last two weeks – not perfect, not ‘cured,’ just noticeably different,” says John. “With that little bit of sugar, he was spinning again. He wasn’t listening, wasn’t focused, and was just climbing the walls.”
By the time Halloween had come around, Jonas was back on a sugar-free diet. To minimize the Halloween candy in the house, John suggested that they have a Halloween party instead of traditionally trick-or-treating. John and his wife offered the kids freshly squeezed juice, sugar-free candies and gum, and festive pencils and erasers. They even decorated their basement, turning it into a haunted house – therefore distracting the kids from just seeking out candy by offering them entertainment.
But “you can’t win them all,” John concludes. “We struck a deal with Jonas and ‘bought’ some of the candy his friends gave him at school. He had a few bucks at the end of the week that he could use for something he really wanted. Fortunately, he didn’t buy candy.”
Soda and other caffeinated beverages. You may have heard that stimulant therapy is widely used for treating ADHD, in an effort to improve focus and impulsive behavior. If you’re an adult, you also likely know that the most popular stimulant in the world is caffeine.
But make no mistake: caffeine, which is found in coffee, tea, soda and chocolate, is not recommended as a treatment for ADHD. In fact, for people who live with ADHD, it’s best to stay away.
While doctors prescribe stimulants in people with ADHD to help them feel calmer and more focused, the typicali medications used are dextoamphetamine (known as Dexedrine), or methylphenidate (which you might recognize as Concerta and Ritalin). These medicines help kick up the ability to be more alert and attentive. In comparison, caffeine has not been found to be very effective, actually causing migraines, sleeplessness, irritability and an upset stomach.
Soda and caffeine is particularly dangerous to kids with ADHD. They have a harder time falling asleep, which means they’re going to have a rough go of it the next day – and which means an increase in symptoms. They might get irritable, anxious, and complain of headaches. They may even start exhibiting tics (rapid or uncontrolled movements). Beyond that, studies have shown that caffeine can affect brain development in growing kids.
If you’re an adult with ADHD, you may find that your reaction to caffeine will differ from that of a peer who also has ADHD. It may affect you more positively or negatively. Make sure to consult with a medical health care professional to see what’s best for you, but take note that caffeine of any amount is likely to affect any prescription you may already be taking.
For kids and adults with ADHD, just say no to energy drinks. The extremely high levels of caffeine in those drinks can cause serious and detrimental effects to your health.
Other foods to avoid include foods that contain trans-fatty acids (check the ingredients list on the side of the box), foods that contain white flour (like white bread and white pasta), and alcohol.
What should my ADHD shopping list include?
Anyone with ADHD needs a constant supply of protein. The following foods are beneficial in the reduction of ADHD symptoms:
Protein. You can have protein with every meal. You can even introduce non-traditional meats to breakfast! Consume healthy amounts of meat, eggs, yogurt, cheese, soy and beans, and nuts.
Omega-3 fatty acids. While ingesting store-bought supplements may or may not help eliminate or minimize ADHD symptoms, eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids is recommended. You can purchase cold-water fish like tuna and salmon. You can also find omega-3 fatty acids in Brazil nuts, flax seeds, walnuts, chia seeds and olive oil.
Good fats. Not all fats are bad! Choose fats like olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil.
Fruits and vegetables. For adults with ADHD, prepare interesting salads for lunch that include fruits, vegetables and nuts. For kids with ADHD, who may turn up their nose at a salad lunch, pack a bento box with cut-up carrots, celery, strawberries and blueberries. Keep colorful fruits and vegetables on the ready, so when your child (or you) with ADHD has a craving for something sweet, it’s right there and available.
Whole grains. We’re talking about complex carbs, like brown rice and whole wheat pasta and crackers. There’s a giant selection of whole wheat foods at any grocery store, so it won’t be difficult to find. Even if you’re used to white rice and white pasta, you’ll find it won’t be a difficult transition switching over to whole wheat options.
If you’re looking for more advice on foods to avoid or foods to choose for the treatment of symptoms of ADHD, visit www.hopetherapyandwellness.com and book an appointment with an experienced mental health professional today.