Omega-3 fatty acids, melatonin, and an elimination diet are a few options that may be helpful for ADHD.
If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may already be aware of how helpful the right treatment can be for managing symptoms.
Whether that treatment includes medication, therapy, or complementary approaches, it can make a big difference in someone’s quality of life with ADHD.
Dietary therapy for ADHD, which involves approaches such as eliminating or adding certain foods to the diet, is often considered a complementary approach to ADHD treatment — one that is best used in combination with other approaches. And although the research on diet and ADHD is mixed, there are a few interventions that have shown promise.
In adults with ADHD, certain nutrient deficiencies may also contribute to a worsening of symptoms. One
The researchers share that children with ADHD also tend to eat foods that are higher in sugar and fat, while also eating less nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables. Dietary differences like these may explain why children with ADHD are more likely to have lower levels of certain nutrients.
Early research suggested that eliminating certain food products, such as foods that contain added sugar and artificial food coloring, may also help reduce ADHD symptoms — especially in children. Many of the studies on these potentially harmful ingredients found that eliminating them from the diet had a positive effect on ADHD symptoms.
However, the research on the subject has evolved since the early 2000s, giving mixed results about diet and ADHD.
Still, despite this evidence, the researchers mention that given the low number of studies on the subject — and potentially poor study designs for some of the studies included — more research is needed to support this possible link.
Foods high in omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) that are important for the regulation of serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that have been shown to play a role in ADHD. One
Eating omega-3 rich foods such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, flax seeds, and chia seeds may help improve serum levels of omega-3s — but these food sources are unlikely to have the same effect as a high dose dietary supplement.
Foods high in iron, zinc, and magnesium
Dietary sources like nuts and seeds, beans, and leafy greens are essential sources of minerals like iron, zinc, and magnesium, but eating these foods will not have the same effect as supplementation.
Foods high in vitamin D
Vitamin D has been suggested to play a role in multiple mental health conditions, including ADHD. A
Sun exposure, fatty fish such as salmon and trout, milk, eggs, and fortified food products are all good sources of vitamin D. However, supplementation is the only way to meet an intake of 50,000 IU, as mentioned in the study above. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that this high of a dosage should only be taken if prescribed by a medical professional.
Supplements containing melatonin
Melatonin is a hormone that
Melatonin is often taken as a supplement, with a
One theory on ADHD and diet is that sugar intake, especially added sugar (like the kind found in candy, chocolate, and other snacks), can make ADHD symptoms in children worse.
However, one large 2019 study in over 1,100 children with ADHD found that there was no significant relationship between added sugar intake and ADHD symptoms. Still, the researchers did note that young children with ADHD were more likely to eat foods high in added sugar — which may explain why sugar intake can sometimes seem to contribute to ADHD symptoms.
Another common theory is that foods containing food coloring may worsen ADHD symptoms in children, but once again, the literature is mixed.
An elimination diet involves identifying and removing foods that you suspect may be making your symptoms worse — and then later re-adding them, slowly and systematically, to determine which foods may be triggers. By learning which foods and ingredients are making your ADHD symptoms worse, you can more easily manage your symptoms in the long run.
One type of elimination diet, the few-foods diet, seems to be the most effective diet for reducing ADHD symptoms. For example, one
However, outside of following an elimination diet, there are no other diets that are currently shown to be effective for reducing ADHD symptoms.
If you’re interested in trying an elimination diet to see if it may improve ADHD symptoms, it’s strongly recommended to only do so under the guidance of a trained professional.
If you’re interested in incorporating more ADHD-friendly foods into your diet, here’s what a sample 3-day meal plan may look like:
- Breakfast: smoothie made with unsweetened Greek yogurt, frozen mixed berries, and almond butter
- Lunch: beef cheeseburger with a whole-grain bun and sweet potato fries
- Dinner: Indian lentil curry with brown Jasmine rice
- Snacks: trail mix made with mixed nuts, dried fruit, and dark chocolate (optional)
- Breakfast: unsweetened oatmeal topped with fresh berries, chopped nuts, and chia seeds
- Lunch: whole-wheat pasta with grilled chicken, sautéed spinach, and mushrooms
- Dinner: baked salmon with roasted broccoli and brown rice
- Snacks: cottage cheese, a hard-boiled egg, and whole cherry tomatoes
- Breakfast: yogurt parfait made with Greek yogurt, mixed berries, and chopped nuts
- Lunch: leftover baked salmon salad made with your choice of leafy greens, sliced veggies (your choice), and salad dressing
- Dinner: beef and red bean chili topped with sour cream (optional)
- Snacks: mixed granola made with whole-grain granola, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds
Whether you’re taking care of a child who has ADHD, or living with ADHD yourself as an adult, one of the most important steps in managing this condition is having a treatment plan.
If you’re concerned that diet may be playing a role in your or your loved one’s symptoms, a good first step is to consider scheduling a meeting with a nutrition professional. Consider choosing a specialist who has experience treating clients with ADHD and can help you create a customized diet plan for your symptoms.
It’s also good to remember that most of the foods that may be beneficial for ADHD are beneficial for the brain in general. So, even with limited research, it’s never a bad idea to consider adding these kinds of nutrient-rich foods to your diet.