3 Worst Foods for ADHD

Worst Foods for ADHD

If you—or your child—have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), also known as attention deficit disorder (ADD), you need to watch what you eat. In fact, one of the biggest influences on our ability to focus, stay organized, control impulsiveness, plan, and follow through on those plans can be found in what we consume. This is critical for the 9.8% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 who have the condition, as well as the 5.4% of adult men and 3.2% of adult women who have been diagnosed.

We already know that diet plays a major role in ADD/ADHD symptoms, so this condition makes it necessary to eliminate certain ingredients while ensuring sufficient levels of mental health-boosting nutrients. Diets that are full of processed foods, synthetic preservatives and coloring, and toxins like pesticides (in other words, the typical diet for many Americans) are downright dangerous for everyone, but they are high on the list of no-nos for those with ADD/ADHD. Here are 3 notorious culprits that crop up in a wide range of foods and beverages and should be avoided by those who have been diagnosed with these disorders.

Diets that are full of processed foods, synthetic preservatives, and coloring, and toxins like pesticides (the typical diet for many Americans) are downright dangerous for everyone, but especially for those with ADD/ADHD. Click To Tweet


1. Sweeteners

Sugar is one of those crutches that a lot of people reach for to combat feeling down or sluggish, but it ends up having the opposite effect. Sugar is disguised under many names, like high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, honey, and maple syrup—and the fake stuff that’s found in diet sodas, including saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame, is no better. Sugar causes spikes and then dips in blood sugar levels, which worsens mood, while sugar consumption over time causes inflammation, lethargy, cravings, addiction, and potentially serious outcomes like aggression and memory issues. Artificial sweeteners, on the other hand, can contribute to chronically high insulin levels, cognitive concerns, behavioral problems, and more.

Keep in mind that sugar is not just found in obvious culprits like candies, sodas, and sweets—it’s also a byproduct of eating refined carbohydrates, like white bread, pasta, and pastries, to name a few. As the body breaks down these foods, they convert to sugar and cause the same blood sugar spikes as you’d expect from decadent desserts. Instead, get your carbohydrate intake from complex carbs and vegetables—and if you crave something sweet, it’s best to select whole fruits that are low in sugar, such as strawberries or grapefruit.

2. Caffeine.

Beverages like sodas and energy drinks contain a double-trouble combination of ingredients for those with ADD/ADHD, thanks to their high levels of both caffeine and sugar (whether refined or artificial types). But even plain coffee can be a bad choice. Just like sugar tricks people into feeling good for a moment, only to lead to a later crash, caffeine can initially feel like it aids in focus since it creates effects on neurotransmitters that are similar to ADD/ADHD medications like Ritalin and Adderall. But after these wear off over time, other negative side effects, such as irritability or lack of focus, can emerge.

In addition, people who consume high levels of caffeine like those found in energy drinks (for example, those with caffeine use disorder) have been observed in one study to experience more significant ADD/ADHD symptoms. In addition, caffeine lowers blood flow to the brain, which can worsen ADD/ADHD symptoms over time. There is also the potential for caffeine to interact poorly with nutraceuticals and medications that are commonly used as treatments for ADD/ADHD—possibly decreasing their effectiveness or increasing any negative side effects.

3. Processed foods

Many parents welcome their kids home from school with prepackaged snacks—think cookies, crackers, fruit chews, or chips—without knowing that such choices are destroying their focus for afterschool tasks like completing homework. This applies to all children, but if your kid has ADD/ADHD, it’s even more important to be vigilant about what you’re serving. When processed snacks are of the sweet variety, we already know that sky-high added sugar levels are going to pose a problem, and savory options like crackers and chips are just as bad, falling under the refined carbs category.

But another potential interaction occurs due to the artificial dyes, such as red dye #40, and the artificial flavorings and preservatives these foods often contain. Various studies have drawn a link between these dyes and children who have ADD/ADHD—and they can increase hyperactivity even in those without these disorders. Similarly, another study determined that artificial colors or a sodium benzoate preservative (or both) in non-ADD/ADHD kids’ diets (at ages 3, 8, and 9) resulted in increased hyperactivity.

Potential Allergens Can Worsen ADHD Symptoms

Another category of foods to avoid will vary according to the individual: Those with ADD/ADHD must be aware of their food allergies and nix foods with those potential triggers. Allergen-containing foods can encourage ADD/ADHD-like symptoms in certain people, while one study has shown that avoiding certain foods through an elimination diet can create significant improvements in symptoms. In fact, researchers have stated that children with ADHD are likely to have sensitivities to artificial food colors, milk, chocolate, soy, eggs, wheat, corn, legumes, grapes, tomatoes, and orange—and, according to their findings, “some studies found ‘cosensitivity’ to be more the rule than the exception.”

Note that there are 7 types of ADD/ADHD, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the right treatment or diet plan, but these general rules can be helpful for everyone. With the appropriate diet, many people experience a lessening or elimination of symptoms, along with improved mood stability, focus, energy, and stamina, as well as less distractibility and cravings for sugar.

Eating Right at Every Mealtime for ADD/ADHD

Eat right around the clock to avoid worsening ADD/ADHD symptoms. For breakfast, rather than reaching for simple carbohydrates, try a protein-based meal, which boosts dopamine levels in the brain. This is a natural way to provide energy and help sharpen focus throughout the school day or workday. After school, avoid any sugary options and offer something with fiber, protein, and healthy fat instead, such as an apple with almond butter or red bell pepper slices with hummus. Once work has been completed, at dinnertime, you can lower the protein levels and reach for more complex fiber-rich carbohydrate foods, such as vegetables, to help wind down.

There’s a lot of wisdom in that old saying from Hippocrates, “Let food be thy medicine.” From improving mood to decreasing anxiety, food has a huge impact on how we feel—and how healthy we become. For those with ADD/ADHD, it’s crucial to keep a close eye on food and beverage consumption, as well as ingredient and nutritional labels. With the right dietary choices, everything from symptoms to medications can be lessened, making management easier and improving total well-being over the long term.

ADD/ADHD and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. Sounds all good and lovely, but my 6 year old has autism as well as ADHD so his foods are extremely limited. There is no way in hell he will eat anything different than his processed food diet high in in sugar. Trust me we have tried everything. He is stubborn.

    Comment by Nicole Wrassmann — February 13, 2023 @ 8:13 AM

  2. I would like to seek some help. How can my son get a brain scan and telehealth consult. If we are based in Manila Philippines

    Comment by Grizel — February 13, 2023 @ 8:40 AM

  3. Great article but what are the options? I am sure there are options that are achievable and available so, maybe throw some of those examples in.

    Comment by Mike Neelan — February 13, 2023 @ 10:10 AM

  4. Simply don't buy crap like the ones mentioned. A child who doesn't have an option between bad food and good food will make the right choice.

    Comment by Rose Ezell — February 13, 2023 @ 1:38 PM

  5. Hello Grizel, thank you for reaching out. For more information about SPECT scans and our services, please contact our Care Coordinators: https://www.amenclinics.com/schedule-visit/. At this time, we only have locations in the U.S.: https://www.amenclinics.com/locations/

    Comment by Amen Clinics — February 13, 2023 @ 2:40 PM

  6. Yes. Red dye in Motrin pain reliever caused a hive reaction on my arms. Dr gave me cortisone 6 pack. Took daily. My throat was closing in front of Dr.
    Also it's in other colored products. A blue meds at Walgreens for sleep sent me to hosp by ambulance. My husband heard me slurring my speech on phone. He called police and ambulance. I just wanted to sleep. My daughter was very sick at the time going to hospitals. I was very stressed. We were separated at time. They put me on oxygen. At hosp they pumped my stomach. I was kept overnight for observation. I never took a sleep product again.

    We cut down a lot on processed foods. I'm also prediabetic. I do a food diary which helps me to plan my meals better. I can look at it and see what I need to eat again. Being insulin resistant was the worst. My cells were not getting proper nutrition. I had to take 500mg avandamet for 6 mos. I passed out at work. Taken to hosp by ambulance again. 3 days my BP 169 over 100.

    I read books on nutrition. Ate better foods. I was eating a lot of pastries at work with coffee. And 3x wk too much Chinese food. It's not good for you. Msg. Soy sauce. I cut it way down. Once month only. Then I felt better. Big pot of soup every week now. Cut down on meats. More chicken eggs and fish and salads and fresh veggies. 72 now. I'm more energetic stronger and healthier today than ages 52 to 62. Believe me. Plus I watch Dr and Mrs Amen on every show. They help me every day with emails.
    Thank you.

    Comment by Donna Hopcraft — February 14, 2023 @ 1:39 AM

  7. Seems I have been hit with a double whammy…I have ADD, but also Collagenous Colitis, so lots of fresh veggies are not tolerated. Too much fiber, must cook most, and very little cruciferous vegetables at all. But have no processed foods, store everything in glass, make my own condiments, no red meat, chicken , fish, and eggs only. I have been a subscriber of Dr. Amen's
    supplements for a year. age 74, doing well, going to school, studying music. Everything he says is the truth.

    Comment by Stephanie A. Wheeler NMT, (NMTCB) retired — February 15, 2023 @ 2:09 PM

  8. Need ideas for an extremely picky OCD/ADHD teenager. I don’t buy crap but they can go to school and get it. No amount of education for her has solved this problem. My daughter has gone to bed starving herself when we make normal family, friendly meals with tears going down her face because she’s so hungry several nights in a row. There are some kids who would rather literally starve, than eat something that they have an aversion to. My daughter would’ve rather starve than eat a veggie or fruit. I have read every book on this and googled every bit of research I can find it but what do you do with a kid who absolutely will not eat anything that is good for them short of starving. Pretty sure it is a disorder of its own. If I make a normal dinner she will only go for the carb portion of it and then binge on it. Even a counselor hasn’t given solutions that are helpful. It just feels like many don’t understand this degree of pickiness.

    Comment by Robyn Williams — April 1, 2023 @ 5:05 PM

  9. To the poster It has a son that is very picky,. My daughter was the same way. I think what cher eating habits was probiotics. When we started making and giving her coconut keeper, she started started to tolerate vegetables, but it took a year. I may be guessing in the dark but does your child like starchy or sugary foods? Because if so then Starches break into sugars and the sugars will if in high amount start to hijack the brain into making chemicals that encourage you to eat or to crave more sugar. It actually starts in the gut as the gut bacteria that feed off sugar will signal to the brain to ask for more sugar. If you give your child coconut kefir with its mendy strains of materia, then your child will eventually start to crave vegetables

    Comment by Sharon — April 14, 2023 @ 3:47 AM

  10. Response for Robyn Williams
    Hi Robyn,
    I am father of 6.5 and 8 years old boys. I do cook sometimes, and my kids sometimes eat it some times don't. Because it is not always taste same. The trick is to make sure to make the food yammi.
    You need to do lost of try and error. Don't always cook the food you like and expect them to eat.
    See, even if I make fries at home, my younger don't eat it. MacDonald fries are better! But I don't give up, I will try again and again.
    So what i am trying to say is, try to modify how you cook. We always can make same version of Junk foods at home, but at home we can make it healthier or better. So try to see what your kid likes and try to make same at home, and then little by little she will get used to home made foods.

    Comment by Navid — October 5, 2023 @ 2:10 PM

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