According to Dr. Sandy Newmark, a contributor to additudemag.com, studies show that a high-protein, low-sugar, no-additive diet, combined with ADHD friendly supplements can improve ADHD symptoms. Newmark states, “I have used nutritional intervention for hundreds of people during the past 24 years. Dietary changes can result in significant improvements in concentration, hyperactivity, impulsivity, and even oppositional behavior. Many people are eager to try foods and supplements to help manage ADHD symptoms, but often don’t know where to start.”
Newmark goes on to share the dietary changes he has found to deliver the most symptom relief. If you, your child or someone you know has ADHD, you may want to give his ideas a try and/or share this information with others.
Protein: Foods rich in protein – beans, eggs, fish, lean beef, low-fat dairy products, nuts, pork, poultry and soy – may have beneficial effects on ADHD symptoms. These protein-rich foods are used by the brain to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals that help brain cells communicate with each other. A protein-rich breakfast will help a child build brain-awakening neurotransmitters. Additionally, protein prevents surges in blood sugars, which increase hyperactivity.
Cut way back on sugars: Newmark feels the single most important diet recommendation she shares with her patients is to decrease the amount of their sugar consumption. Many people fail to understand that eating simple processed carbohydrates, like waffles, white bread or white rice, is almost like feeding your child sugar. These foods can make you feel irritable, stressed and unfocused. Instead, serve breakfasts and lunches high in complex carbs, fiber and protein to increase concentration and better behavior.
Omega-3s: Much has been documented about the use of Omega-3s for heart care; however, these fatty acids can also improve concentration, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Research suggest that children with ADHD have lower blood levels of Omega-3s than those without the condition. In fact, a recent study showed that 25% of kids with ADHD had a decrease in symptoms after three months and 50% showed improvement by the sixth month.
EPA and DHA are the two main Omega-3s contained in supplements. It appears most benefits are derived from supplements containing more EPA than DHA. As a rule, a total dose of 700 – 1,000 mg seems good for younger children and 1,500 – 2,000 mg for older children. It is best to take Omega-3s in capsule or liquid forms because the chewable forms (think gummies) don’t have that much fish oil in them.
Maintain iron levels: Iron plays an essential role in controlling ADHD symptoms. A 2004 study found that the average iron level of ADHD (measured as ferritin) was half – 22 compared to 44 – that of non-ADHD children. Another study showed that increasing iron levels in children with ADHD improved their symptoms almost as much as taking a stimulant. Beware, however, as too much iron is dangerous; have your pediatrician test your child’s ferritin levels before giving iron.
Check magnesium and zinc levels: These minerals are not only essential to normal health, they may also play an important role in controlling ADHD symptoms. Many children, with and without ADHD, don’t get enough of them. Zinc regulates the neurotransmitter dopamine and may help methylphenidate work more effectively.
Read labels to weed out food chemicals: There are studies that suggest artificial additives make kids without ADHD more hyperactive, and make hyperactive kids worse. Candy, cheese puffs and Gatorade all contain artificial colors and preservatives, but these things can also be found in other foods as well. Fresh unprocessed foods are the best choices. Avoid colorful cereals, and substitute 100% fruit juice for soft drinks. Always read food ingredient labels so you can find additive-free foods.
Be aware of food sensitivities: Many children with ADHD have worse symptoms because they are sensitive to certain foods in their diet. The most common culprits are dairy, soy and wheat. If you suspect two foods are exacerbating your child’s ADHD symptoms, eliminate one for two to three weeks. Observe your child closely during that time to determine if the symptoms decrease. If you believe you or your child needs to be on a restrictive diet, find a professional to guide you.
Check for gluten-related problems: An allergy to gluten (protein found in barley, rye and wheat) can worsen ADHD symptoms as well as cause a whole set of other problems. Many ADHD patients improve while on gluten-free diets. If you suspect you or your child has a gluten allergy, consult your doctor and ask about going on an elimination diet. If you are found to be allergic, your doctor will assist you in switching to a gluten-free diet.
Helpful herbs: Most herbs being recommended for managing ADHD symptoms have been poorly researched. The ones that are backed by research and also work are a combination of valerian and lemon balm, which seem to relax ADHD children by reducing anxiety. A product called Nurture & Clarity may improve attention. There is some evidence that pycnogenol, made from pine bark, improves concentration in some children. Always look for standardized herbs that are free of contaminants.
Visit the ADD and Diet Food Resource Center for more must-have resources on incorporating ADHD-friendly foods into your diet.