Ryan Sheridan, NP
What Foods to Avoid with ADHD? A Nutritional Psychiatry Guide
Updated: May 5
Nutritional psychiatry means optimizing what we eat to help improve mental health - and is a key piece of integrative psychiatry as a whole.
Avoiding certain foods may be helpful for some people in managing ADHD.
By cutting out sugar and artificial sweeteners, processed foods, red and yellow food dyes, gluten, and dairy products, we may be able to reduce your ADHD symptoms.
As an integrative psychiatric nurse practitioner, I can help you balance your life, including nutrition.
Hey again! If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), you know how challenging it can be to manage symptoms like difficulty focusing, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.
While medication for ADHD - and therapy - can be helpful, did you know that your nutrition can also play a role in managing ADHD symptoms? Enter nutritional psychiatry, which is using the food we eat to treat and manage our symptoms. Oh, and you know me... no blog post would be complete without a plug for how exercise can improve ADHD and how any holistic treatment plan will also discuss the importance of sleep for ADHD as well.
Interestingly enough, certain foods have been linked to worsening ADHD symptoms, so it's important to be aware of what you're putting into your body. In this blog post, we'll go over some foods to avoid if you have ADHD. (If you're interested in what supplements can be helpful for ADHD, head over to this post).
Before we dive in, I want to remind you that I do not endorse avoidance of entire food groups – carbs, fats, or protein. Our bodies need all of the food groups, so avoiding or forgoing food groups can lead to nutritional deficiencies and malnourishment. This includes fad diets like Keto or Atkins which are exclusionary of food groups.
And remember, eating some of these foods is generally okay. We need to allow ourselves the ability to indulge guilt-free on occasion. Nutrition and health is a long game, not a sprint. Making meaningful, lasting change is not about rigidity - instead it is about working toward healthy choices most of the time.
Also, now that we are on the topic, it is important to note that the relationship between nutrition and ADHD and extends to mental health overall. Our mental health is closely related to having and maintaining healthy food intake of nutrient dense foods.
Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners and ADHD
Let's why sugar and artificial sweeteners may need to be avoided if you have ADHD. Sugar, found in foods like candy, baked goods, and sweetened drinks, may cause a rapid spike in dopamine levels, leading to a subsequent crash that can exacerbate inattention and difficulty concentrating. Sugar essentially acts as a drug, operating on the dopamine reward pathway causing spikes and crashes. This can be especially problematic for those with ADHD, who already struggle with impulse control and may be prone to hyperactivity. Sugar can also lead to blood sugar changes that further complicate focus, impulsivity, and not to mention dysregulating how our body fuels our brain in general.
But it's not just sugar that's the problem - artificial sweeteners can also worsen ADHD symptoms. Aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose are common artificial sweeteners found in many diet drinks and processed foods, and research has shown that they can cause behavioral problems in children with ADHD.
A study published found that children who consumed drinks sweetened with aspartame had more hyperactive behavior and lower cognitive scores compared to children who drank a placebo beverage. Similarly, a study found that children who consumed drinks sweetened with sucralose had more behavioral problems and lower cognitive scores compared to children who drank a placebo beverage.
So, it's important to read food labels carefully to see what’s really inside. It is never a bad idea to skip products that contain added sugar and artificial sweeteners. (Note: this is NOT avoidance of entire food groups, we’re just avoiding the highly refined sugars and fake sugars.) Instead, opt for whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, which can provide sustained energy without causing dopamine and blood sugar spikes.
It's worth noting that not all sources of sugar are created equal. Natural sugars found in whole foods like fruits and dairy products are generally healthier than added sugars found in processed foods. If you have a sweet tooth, try satisfying your cravings with whole fruit or a small serving of dark chocolate instead of reaching for a sugary snack or dessert.
Processed Foods and ADHD
Processed foods have become a staple of the modern diet, and unfortunately, they are not doing us any favors, particularly for those with ADHD. Processed foods are typically high in calories, unhealthy fats, and sugar, while being low in essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. These foods often contain artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives that can contribute to ADHD symptoms.
Research has shown that a diet high in processed foods can lead to worsening ADHD symptoms. But why do processed foods have such a negative impact on ADHD symptoms?
One reason is that they are often low in nutrients that are essential for brain health, such as omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, and B vitamins. These nutrients are important for cognitive function, mood regulation, and impulse control, all of which can be impaired in people with ADHD. Processed foods are also typically high in sugar, which, as we discussed earlier, can cause dopamine and blood sugar spikes and worsen inattention and impulsivity.
So, what should you eat instead of processed foods? Focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. These foods contain the essential nutrients your brain needs to function at its best and are less likely to exacerbate ADHD symptoms.
If you're short on time, there are plenty of quick and easy whole food options available. For example, you can pack a piece of fruit, a handful of nuts, and a yogurt for a healthy and portable snack. Or, try making a batch of overnight oats for a quick and nutritious breakfast.
Red and Yellow Food Dyes and ADHD
Red and yellow food dyes are often found in processed foods, including snacks, candy, and soda, and have been linked to hyperactivity and behavioral problems in children with ADHD. These artificial dyes, also known as food colorings, are added to products to enhance their appearance and make them more appealing to consumers.
The most common red food dye is Red 40, while Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 are the most commonly used yellow food dyes. Studies have shown that these dyes can cause hyperactivity and behavioral problems in children with ADHD, leading many experts to recommend avoiding them altogether. In fact, a meta-analysis of 15 studies found that artificial food colorings had a significant negative impact on behavior in children with ADHD. The study concluded that eliminating or reducing exposure to these food colorings could be a viable treatment option for children with ADHD.
It's worth noting that not all food colorings are harmful. Some natural food colorings, such as those derived from beet juice or turmeric, are considered safe and may even have health benefits.
However, it can be difficult to distinguish between natural and artificial food colorings, so it's best to read food labels carefully and avoid products that contain Red 40, Yellow 5, or Yellow 6.
Instead of consuming processed foods that contain artificial food colorings, try incorporating more whole foods into your diet. Fruits and vegetables, for example, can provide a wide range of nutrients and are often naturally colorful. You can also experiment with using natural food colorings in your own cooking and baking, such as beet juice or matcha powder.
Gluten and ADHD
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. For people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, consuming gluten can cause a range of symptoms, including digestive issues, fatigue, and brain fog. However, there is some evidence to suggest that gluten may also worsen ADHD symptoms in some individuals.
A study published found that children with ADHD who followed a gluten-free diet for six months showed significant improvement in their ADHD symptoms compared to those who continued to consume gluten. Similarly, another study found that children with celiac disease and ADHD who followed a gluten-free diet experienced a significant reduction in ADHD symptoms.
The exact reason why gluten may worsen ADHD symptoms is not yet fully understood. Some experts believe that gluten can cause inflammation in the gut, leading to the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines that can cross the blood-brain barrier and impact brain function.
Additionally, some research suggests that people with ADHD may be more likely to have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which could be contributing to their symptoms.
It's worth noting that not everyone with ADHD will benefit from a gluten-free diet, and more research is needed to fully understand the link between gluten and ADHD symptoms. However, if you suspect that gluten may be contributing to your symptoms, it may be worth trying a gluten-free diet for a few weeks to see if you notice any improvement.
If you do decide to try a gluten-free diet, it's important to make sure you are still getting all the nutrients your body needs. Gluten-free products can be higher in sugar and lower in fiber and essential nutrients than their gluten-containing counterparts, so it's important to choose nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains like quinoa and brown rice.
Dairy products and ADHD
Dairy products, including milk, cheese, and yogurt, are a common part of many people's diets. However, for some individuals with ADHD, consuming dairy products may worsen their symptoms.
There are several theories as to why dairy may worsen ADHD symptoms. One theory is that some people with ADHD may have an intolerance or allergy to the proteins found in dairy products, such as casein or whey. This can lead to inflammation in the body and brain, which can worsen ADHD symptoms.
Another theory is that dairy products may increase mucus production, leading to congestion and brain fog in some individuals. This can make it more difficult to concentrate and may exacerbate ADHD symptoms.
A study found that children with ADHD who consumed more than 20 grams of dairy protein per day were more likely to have worsening ADHD symptoms compared to those who consumed less than 20 grams of dairy protein per day. However, the study also found that the type of dairy protein consumed (casein vs. whey) did not seem to make a difference in ADHD symptoms.
If you suspect that dairy products may be contributing to your ADHD symptoms, it may be worth trying an elimination diet to see if you notice any improvement. During an elimination diet, you would remove all dairy products from your diet for a period of time (usually 2-4 weeks) and then slowly reintroduce them one at a time while monitoring your symptoms.
If you do decide to eliminate dairy from your diet, it's important to make sure you are still getting all the essential nutrients that dairy provides, such as calcium and vitamin D. Fortunately, there are many non-dairy sources of these nutrients, including leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and fortified non-dairy milk alternatives.
Conclusion: What foods to Avoid with ADHD
In conclusion, while there is no one-size-fits-all diet for managing ADHD symptoms, avoiding certain foods may be helpful for some people. By cutting out sugar and artificial sweeteners, processed foods, red and yellow food dyes, gluten, and dairy products, you may be able to reduce your ADHD symptoms and improve your overall health.
As always, it's never a bad idea to chat with your healthcare provider before making any major changes to your diet. If you'd like and are in the Washington, DC area, you can book a free 15 minute intro with me today. I can help you come up with a personalized nutrition plan that meets your individual needs and goals. Good luck, and happy eating!
If you have any additional questions about ADHD or integrative psychiatry in general, shoot me an email or reach out through my website. If you're looking for a provider and you're in the Washington, DC area, I'd love to help you on your treatment journey!