It's Not That Clear-Cut

Can Eating Certain Foods Really Help — Or Heighten — ADHD Symptoms?

Many health and wellness experts suggest dietary tweaks might make a difference.

Many health and wellness experts suggest dietary choices could improve — or aggravate — ADHD symptom...
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Now that ADHD has become less stigmatized, more people (especially on TikTok) are talking about their symptoms. That also means that many people are talking about the "hacks" they use to help them manage daily life. Some of these ADHD tips are brilliant, like banishing folding or setting visual timers. Are they quote-unquote cures? Of course not. Yet, there's an entire community of people who think they've solved ADHD by just changing their diet — which, to be clear, is a crock of sh*t. Any mom with ADHD or any parent with a child with ADHD will tell you food can't single-handedly cause or cure ADHD. But this got me thinking: Can eating certain foods and noting your intake of certain vitamins and nutrients help your ADHD symptoms? As it turns out, plenty of medical experts say "yes."

It goes without saying there's nothing wrong with taking the medication you need (although, all too often, there's way too much shame attached to ADHD and medication). It also goes without saying no miracle diet exists that can fix every issue or ailment — no matter what the self-proclaimed TikTok experts say. But it's OK to want to explore ways you can make life with ADHD a little easier, including how food factors into that equation.

So, Scary Mommy asked a few experts to sound off on the potential connection between what we eat and how it affects ADHD.

Can eating certain foods help your ADHD?

According to Becca Smith, LPC, chief clinical officer at Basepoint Academy, sure, you could say that.

"I prefer to look at it as a question of nutrition and how it impacts overall brain functioning," explains Smith. "ADHD is a condition marked by deficits in attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. While medication can help manage symptoms, nutrition should not be overlooked as a potential tool for improvement. Incorporating more whole and nutrient-dense foods into the diet while avoiding processed and refined options may provide additional support for brain functioning and potentially improve symptoms of ADHD."

Which foods might help ADHD?

"Certain nutrients have been shown to be essential for proper brain function, including omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, and B vitamins," says Smith. "These can be found in a variety of foods, such as fish, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds. A study in 2017 found that omega-3/6 fatty acids can benefit some children with ADHD."

Lisa Richards, a nutritionist and creator of the Candida Diet, expands on the importance of omega-3s. "Integrating a diet rich in omega-3 containing foods into one's diet is a healthy behavior that can have crucial benefits for cognitive function, in both the short and long-term. This is because roughly 60% of the brain is made of fat, and half that amount is omega-3 type fats. The brain requires omega-3 fat to make nerve cells, which are vital to memory and one's ability to learn. Omega-3-rich foods include fatty fish, walnuts, chia, flaxseed, navy beans, avocado, tofu, and canola oil. With a list this extensive and diverse, it is easier than expected to take in adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids through the diet on a regular basis."

Can certain foods make your ADHD symptoms worse?

The short answer is yes, which you may have already suspected.

"Processed and refined foods have been linked to disruptions in brain function by increasing inflammation and creating imbalances in essential neurotransmitters. This includes sugars, artificial colors and preservatives, trans fats, and other additives," confirms Smith. "For instance, some studies suggest a link between processed and sugary foods and an increase in hyperactive behavior. These foods cause spikes and drops in blood sugar, leading to mood and behavior changes."

Simply put: Processed and sugary foods can increase hyperactive behavior in anyone. So, someone already prone to that behavior will also see an increase.

What's the big takeaway here?

As with all things, there's never one clear answer involved. If you're already on medication for ADHD, it's best to consult your doctor before you consider stopping it. In most cases, they'll probably suggest a very long, gradual tapering off. That can be frustrating for many, but it will better help you gauge what works and what doesn't without throwing yourself entirely off kilter. As a reminder: There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking the medication you need. If anything, think of changing your diet as something to try in addition to taking your medicine.

"I want to note that nutrition is just one aspect of ADHD management," adds Smith. "Of course, eating a balanced and nutritious diet is always a good place to start to improve overall health and well-being. But when dealing with ADHD, it should always be considered in conjunction with other approaches, such as therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. Ultimately, every individual is different, and what works for one person may not work for another. Hence, consult a mental health professional to help create an individualized plan for managing ADHD symptoms."

Brian Clark, BSN, MSNA, and the founder of United Medical Education, also points out that much of the "science" backing up food and ADHD correlations is just theoretical — nothing is actually proven.

"There are numerous theories as to why certain foods may help or hinder ADHD symptoms, but there is no conclusive answer," says Clark. "Some people believe that certain foods or ingredients can help with focus and concentration, while others believe they can aggravate ADHD symptoms. To determine what may work best for an individual with ADHD, consult with a doctor or qualified health professional."