Can a Healthier Diet Improve Your ADHD? This RD Says Yes, Here’s How
We already know that making dietary changes alone can make a difference in both preventing and alleviating symptoms of many different health conditions, including heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and acid reflux. Now, emerging and ongoing research is suggesting that the same is true for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Becca Harris, RD, a dietitian who specializes in ADHD and founder of The Nutrition Junky blog, would know. Through her firsthand experience, she discovered that making small dietary shifts can improve ADHD symptoms.
As of now, there are no official dietary guidelines for people with ADHD. Harris, who didn’t get an ADHD diagnosis until she was completing her master’s degree in nutrition, often found herself frustrated with some of her own eating habits.
“This included my eating patterns—ignoring my hunger cues, bingeing on foods later in the day, and never being able to keep on top of weekday meal prep,” she explains. “I would often resort to things like cheese and crackers or cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
The symptoms of ADHD are divided into two categories: hyperactivity and inattention. Harris has the combined type of ADHD, which means she has both.
“The symptoms I find the most challenging are distractibility and hyperactivity,” she says. “Having restless and unfocused energy impacts every aspect of my life.”
There’s no cure for ADHD. The treatment for ADHD generally involves a combination of medication and psychological counseling, along with education and skills training, to help manage the symptoms.
According to Harris, making a few key dietary changes can also improve ADHD. Read on to find out the strategies that worked for her.
1. Not skipping meals
“With ADHD, it can be a challenge to remember to eat,” says Harris. “Lunch was often ‘the forgotten meal’ for me as I would be focused on other tasks or feel too overwhelmed to get up from my desk.”
When Harris began making more of an effort to eat consistently throughout the day, she found she was both less irritable and more focused. She accomplished this by setting alarm reminders to eat and making sure to keep foods on hand that are super easy to prepare and serve.
“Fluctuations in blood sugar can affect energy levels and mood, potentially exacerbating ADHD symptoms,” Harris explains. “Eating regularly helps maintain stable energy levels and focus.”
For this reason, Harris strongly advises against adhering to a low-calorie or restrictive diet if you have ADHD.
If you’re looking for simple but nutritious meal ideas, check out the recipes in the Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder’s (CHADD) Cookbook For Busy Minds.
2. Planning ahead
“As much as people with ADHD may hate to admit it, systems are our friends,” says Harris. “Having a plan for the components of meal prep can really change the game.”
Harris recommends scheduling a set day of the week to grocery shop and coming up with a specific menu for the week. Find time every week—say, on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday night—to prepare some meal ingredients ahead of time. For example, chopping vegetables for salads, grilling some chicken breast to toss into wraps and sandwiches or cooking some quinoa and brown rice for lunch and dinner bowls can go a long way. This helps to ensure that even on your busiest days, you always have a convenient meal to grab on your way out the door or on a quick work break.
3. Focusing on protein
Eating enough protein is crucial for brain health, as amino acids—the building blocks of protein—help to produce neurotransmitters. These chemical messengers play a variety of important roles in the body pertaining to memory, learning, concentration, sleep, and mood.
“This includes dopamine, which is considered to be the primary neurotransmitter behind ADHD symptoms,” explains Harris. “It plays a role in attention regulation, motivation, emotional response, and the internal pleasure and rewards systems.”
Harris noticed an improvement in her ADHD symptoms when she began adding a source of protein at every meal and snack. This approach helps to keep blood sugar levels stable, which can have a positive impact on your focus and concentration.
According to Harris, some of the best sources of protein to incorporate include:
- Lean meats and poultry
- Legumes and beans
- Nuts and nut butters
- Dairy products
4. Finding healthy “convenience foods”
If a snack or meal takes a long time to prepare, you may avoid the task entirely and skip a meal or opt for a less nutritious alternative that spikes your blood sugar, thus making it difficult to focus. This is especially true on days when you’re particularly low in energy or motivation.
Having easy or no-prep options can ensure that you eat more regularly, says Harris—and that, in turn, helps with ADHD symptoms.
“Remember: no food is worse for you or your symptoms than not eating,” she adds. “With the exception of foods you’re allergic or sensitive to, of course.”
Food for thought: A 2020 study in The American Journal of Medical Genetics found that consuming more fruits and veggies may improve ADHD inattention symptoms. Apples, bananas, grapes, and berries are all convenient fruits to keep on hand because you don’t have to cut them up before eating them. The same can be said for baby carrots, sugar snap peas, and celery stalks.
5. Investing in a large reusable water bottle
According to The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the recommended daily water intake is about 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) for men, and about 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) for women.
You may find that it’s really hard to hit that goal, though, if you have ADHD. At least that was the case for Harris: she found it difficult to remember to refill her water glass multiple times a day.
“People with ADHD are more at risk of dehydration if they are hyperfocused on something else or if they experience lower interoceptive awareness,” explains Harris. “And dehydration can negatively impact ADHD symptoms.”
Harris recommends investing in a large water bottle that you only have to fill up once or twice a day. That way, you always have plenty of water available whether you’re working at your desk, or in your car running errands.
Harris started using a 1-liter thermal water bottle and now consistently drinks between 2-3 liters of water a day.
The bottom line
The key with ADHD is to make healthy habits as easy for yourself as possible. And while the above strategies may work for many people, the reality is that there’s no one-size-fits-all ADHD diet. That’s because ADHD symptoms can range so widely, and everyone’s body reacts differently to various foods.
“Your diet should be specific to your needs, dietary preferences, and goals,” says Harris.
For example, some people may find that sugar exacerbates their ADHD symptoms more than others. Or, some may notice that they need more carbohydrates than others in order to have adequate energy and mental focus.
“For that reason, I would recommend that every person with ADHD find what works best for them,” Harris adds.
You may want to start keeping a food journal, so you can log how you feel after each meal and begin to note which foods tend to improve or worsen your ADHD symptoms.
Finally, Harris says working with a registered dietitian can be helpful if you need some guidance or support in this process.
Read next: What to Eat When You Really Need to Focus
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