The latest scientific findings show that certain foods might play a role in worsening ADHD symptoms. Here’s what you need to know to create a better ADHD diet.
By Wyatt Myers
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
For years, doctors have speculated that certain foods may play a role in ADHD. Although much research has been done on the subject, it’s still not believed that food actually causes ADHD. What diet does seem do, however, is worsen ADHD symptoms or trigger symptoms that mimic the signs of ADHD in children. “Excessive caffeine and excessive use of fast foods and other foods of poor nutritional value can cause kids to display behavior that might be confused with ADHD,” says Frank Barnhill, MD, an expert on ADHD and the author of Mistaken for ADHD. The following foods in particular have been implicated in ADHD in one way or another.
Candy is loaded with sugar and artificial colors, which is a bad combination when it comes to children with ADHD who often need to follow an ADHD diet. Both of these components have been shown to promote ADHD symptoms in studies. “With the high content of sugar and artificial coloring, candy is a huge contributor to ADHD,” says Howard Peiper, author of The ADD and ADHD Diet.
If you have ADHD, consider eliminating soda. These sweet drinks often have many of the same sugars and sweeteners that make candy a bad idea for kids on the ADHD diet. Soda also has other ingredients that can help worsen ADHD symptoms, such as high-fructose corn syrup and caffeine. “Excessive sugar and caffeine intake both cause symptoms of hyperactivity and easy distractibility,” says Dr. Barnhill.
Cake Mixes and Frostings
Cake mix and frosting contain the high amounts of sugar and artificial colors that can lead to hyperactivity and other ADHD symptoms. Naheed Ali, MD, ADHD expert and the author of Diabetes and You: A Comprehensive, Holistic Approach, adds that these products are often also loaded with several artificial sweeteners. “When frosting and cake mix contain artificial sweeteners, they increase the risk of ADHD symptoms more than natural sweeteners would,” he says.
Energy drinks are becoming increasingly popular among kids, especially teens. Unfortunately, they also have a veritable treasure trove of ingredients that can worsen ADHD symptoms: sugar, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, caffeine, and other stimulants. “Energy drinks are high on the list of things that cause teens to display behaviors mimicking ADHD,” says Barnhill. They have no place in a healthy ADHD diet.
Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
Most fruits and vegetables are healthy choices for an ADHD diet, but some frozen varieties can contain artificial colors, so check all labels carefully. Barnhill says these can cause ADHD symptoms for another reason as well. “Foods treated with organophosphates for insect control have been shown to cause neurologic-based behavioral problems that mimic ADHD and many other behavior problems,” he says.
Fish and Other Seafood
Dr. Ali says that eating fish and other seafood with trace amounts of mercury can cause ADHD symptoms in the long term. Some of the worst culprits are shark, king mackerel, swordfish, and tilefish. “Mercury, like cellulose, is extremely hard to digest and can accumulate in the brain over time,” explains Ali. “This can lead to hyperactivity.” Talk to your doctor or ADHD nutritionist about the best types of fish to include in your ADHD diet.
Other Food Sensitivities
According to a recent study, many children with food sensitivities can exhibit ADHD symptoms after they are exposed to certain foods. Based on the results of the research, some of the common foods that can cause ADHD reactions include milk, chocolate, soy, wheat, eggs, beans, corn, tomatoes, grapes, and oranges. If you suspect a food sensitivity may be contributing to your child’s ADHD symptoms, talk to your doctor about the possibility of trying an elimination diet.