The Surprising Role Diet Plays in ADD/ADHD Symptoms

Diet and ADD/ADHD

If you (or a loved one) have ADD/ADHD, you may struggle with focus and attention, be easily distracted, feel spacey, or be a procrastinator. At some times of the day or on certain days of the week, you may notice that your symptoms seem more pronounced. You probably chalk it up to stress or bad sleep, but in many cases, it could be what you’re eating that intensifies your ADD/ADHD symptoms and makes it harder to get things done. Food can have a powerful effect—either positive or negative—on cognitive function, emotions, and behavior. The right diet can decrease the amount of ADD/ADHD medication needed. The wrong diet can exacerbate ADD/ADHD symptoms.

Food can have a powerful effect—either positive or negative—on cognitive function, emotions, and behavior. The right diet can decrease the amount of ADD/ADHD medication needed. The wrong diet can exacerbate ADD/ADHD symptoms. Click To Tweet

At Amen Clinics, dietary interventions are an important part of a treatment plan for ADD/ADHD, a common mental health condition that affects over 6 million kids and 4.4% of adults in the U.S. However, not all people with this condition are alike. The brain imaging work at Amen Clinics has identified 7 types of ADD/ADHD and it’s important to eat for your type. (You can take the Amen Clinics quiz to discover your ADD Type here.) When patients begin to eat for their ADD Type they tend to notice better mood stability, focus, energy, and stamina as well as less distractibility and fewer sugar cravings. You can too by following these tips.

Think higher protein, lower carbs for most ADD Types.

In general, most people with ADD/ADHD do better on a higher-protein, lower-carbohydrate diet that enhances focus. People with ADD/ADHD tend to have low levels of dopamine, so it’s a good idea to eat foods that tend to increase dopamine such as beef, poultry, fish, eggs, seeds (pumpkin and sesame), nuts (almonds and walnuts), cheese, protein powders, and green tea.

Special dietary recommendations for Type 3 Overfocused ADD.

The recommendation for a higher-protein, lower-carb diet isn’t the case for people with Type 3 Overfocused ADD. This ADD Type is associated with low serotonin, in addition to the low dopamine levels that are seen in the other types. The Overfocused ADD Type is often associated with excessive worry, moodiness, rigid thinking, and irritability. With this type, the problem isn’t that you can’t pay attention, it’s that you can’t stop paying attention, which means you get stuck on negative thoughts or behaviors. A higher-protein, lower-carb diet that improves focus may cause people with Overfocused ADD to focus even more on the things that bother them. Dietary interventions for this type need to include naturally increasing serotonin with smart carbs such as sweet potatoes, apples, blueberries, carrots, gluten-free steel-cut oatmeal, quinoa, and chickpeas.

Kick the caffeine habit.

A brain imaging study in Human Brain Mapping shows that caffeine decreases overall blood flow to the brain, which in turn will make ADD /ADHD symptoms worse over time in all 7 types. Based on over 30 years of clinical practice at Amen Clinics, caffeine decreases the effectiveness of medication and supplement treatments and increases the number of side effects people have from medication.

Rule out refined carbs: Simple carbohydrate foods zap concentration. Refined carbs are loaded with sugar or substances that are easily broken down into sugar in the body. They trigger a quick spike then a crash in blood sugar levels that leaves people feeling spacey, confused, tired, and inattentive. In addition, simple carbs spike serotonin levels in the brain, which make you feel temporarily happier and more relaxed. Sounds great, but serotonin can also give people a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude that drains motivation and drive. Not exactly the best mindset for work or school. Stick with smart carbs, such as those indicated above for people with the Overfocused ADD Type.

Focus on protein for breakfast.

When it comes to what we eat at mealtime, Americans have it all wrong. We tend to eat simple carbs in the morning and have more protein-based meals at night. But eating a typical breakfast of pancakes, waffles, muffins, bagels, or cereal can increase ADD/ADHD-like symptoms and set you up for a challenging day at the office or in the classroom. It’s better for people with ADD/ADHD to eat protein in the morning. Protein, found in meat, nuts, or eggs, boosts dopamine levels and helps us feel more driven, motivated, and focused. A better breakfast for most ADD Types would be hard-boiled eggs, nuts, chopped veggies, and fruit, or a protein drink like this Focus and Energy Smoothie.

Snack for success.

For many parents, the go-to after-school snack for their kids involves a few cookies and a soda—a nasty combo of refined carbs and caffeine. This is followed by a reminder to kids that it’s time to do their homework. In this all-too-common scenario, parents unintentionally sabotage their children’s ability to concentrate on their homework and complete it. Better snack options—for kids and adults—include an apple with almond butter or red bell peppers with hummus.

Avoid potential food allergens: A growing body of research shows that potential allergens—gluten, corn, soy, artificial dyes, sugar, artificial sweeteners, and dairy—may trigger ADD/ADHD-like symptoms in some people. Food additives and colorings, such as red dye 40, can cause hyperactivity in children with no history of the problem, according to a study in the prestigious journal The Lancet. Clinical practice at Amen Clinics suggests this may affect adult patients, too. In other research from the ADHD Research Centre in the Netherlands, 85% of children who followed an elimination diet showed an improvement of 50% or more and no longer met the criteria for ADHD.

ADD/ADHD and other mental health issues can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever and waiting until life gets back to “normal” is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.

At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. We are dedicated to using the most effective, least toxic solutions including dietary interventions, nutritional supplements, and more. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

18 Comments

  1. This is valuable information. Thank you, Dr. Amen!

    Comment by Denise Caruselle — August 4, 2021 @ 3:21 AM

  2. I have this all my life . I’m 64 now . How can I help myself ?

    Comment by Teri — August 4, 2021 @ 3:21 AM

  3. How would alcohol intake affect ADD/ADHD?

    Comment by Barbara — August 4, 2021 @ 5:39 AM

  4. My neohew in the Philippines is autistic he’s 14 years old he can’t sleep and getting violent or angry but they have no access to a psychiatric Dr
    What food or supplement can you advise?
    Thanks

    Comment by marion vicente — August 4, 2021 @ 6:23 AM

  5. My sons and myself all have varying levels of ADD. Four years ago after cutting out sugar, artificial colors, and flavors, and adding in a quality fish oil supplement, my oldest son was brought into “normal” levels of attention capacity and my youngest son’s symptoms were so alleviated he was able to go off medication (with doctor’s supervision and his teachers’ support) and has been drug free ever since. Two years ago I went on a keto-paleo diet and eliminated caffeine from my diet and have completely alleviated my anxiety, and stress issues. Getting back to an ancestral diet works. At this point people are surprised to hear that any of us have ADD because these dietary changes enable us to be attentive, focused, productive, and mellow and as a result there is a great deal less stress in our home and work/school environments. Cutting sugar is hard, but give a paleo-type diet about 30 days to take effect and you will see a significant difference.

    Comment by Kristine — August 4, 2021 @ 6:40 AM

  6. Thank you once again for your wise advice. You sure have helped this family of ADD members. Making our lives happier and healthier. We have followed your advice for more than 15 years. The quality of our lives have much improved. Thank you.❤️

    Comment by Judy Judy — August 4, 2021 @ 6:56 AM

  7. Please advise how load up on protein if i am a plant-based no meat person. I want to know what marathon runners all stars like dr. Ruth Heidruch (80-year-old) eats for protein.

    Comment by Paris — August 4, 2021 @ 7:25 AM

  8. Thank you for this article! I personally have benefited by drinking vegan protein shakes as snacks and it really helps me to focus. Nutrition is key!

    Comment by Kimmie Krakowski — August 4, 2021 @ 9:06 AM

  9. I second the idea of more protein and fewer, smarter carbs than most people eat. Since I was not diagnosed with ADHD until age 68, I am dealing with aging as well as ADHD, and I think more high-quality plant and animal protein helps with both.

    Besides ADHD, there is research indicating that older people probably need more, not less, protein (along with exercise, of course) than younger people to maintain their dwindling muscle mass–and it should be on a per lb or kg of body weight, not percentage of calories. Since I only eat twice a day, I know I have to aim for at least 20g protein at breakfast–which can be a challenge. I will definitely try that smoothie recipe of Tana’s.

    In addition, Joseph Kraft found that a large percentage of people who are NOT diabetic are still insulin resistant to some degree, so limiting carbs and avoiding snacking will help improve their insulin sensitivity, benefiting both peripheral metabolism and brain function. Moreover, allowing 12-16 hours between dinner and breakfast lets one’s insulin return to baseline, so restful sleep, hormone production, fat burning, and other non-digestive processes can unfold.

    Comment by Chicken Little — August 4, 2021 @ 9:23 AM

  10. This is very helpful- I agree this works for me – if I eat a bagel I’m toast ( haha) super tired and unable to focus. A hard boiled egg I’m good !

    Comment by Mary Hennessy — August 4, 2021 @ 11:13 AM

  11. I never did find the test of 70 questions..thanks for reminding me about food, and diet

    Comment by Jacqoline Deardorff — August 4, 2021 @ 4:19 PM

  12. I am 50 years old and displayed ADD/ADHD symptoms in childhood and throughout life. My mother and maternal grandmother also have always displayed ADD symptoms (gotta love genetics!). However, I have worked hard to learn my triggers and to manage my symptoms. I stay away from artificial food colorings (I know that to this day they trigger serious hyperactivity and mood swings – I’ve had some nasty experiences in the last five years when I’ve eaten something that turned out to have colorings in it), am on a low gluten diet and have stayed away from caffeine for a long time (the last two because I also have fibromyalgia). I just went and did the ADD Type test on the website, and my result was “you many not have ADD/ADHD”. I know I do have ADHD (I think either classic or temporal lobe), and that my symptoms are so much worse without management, and I feel that the reason for this result is down to the fact that I have made so many of these dietary changes. I have been taking a tyrosine supplement of late (dopamine building block) which I have also found helpful. And now I intend to try to increase protein/decrease carbs and see if that helps too. Thank you for your research! Your “Healing ADD” book is in the bookcase behind me and is next on my reading list.

    Comment by Bronwyn R. — August 4, 2021 @ 4:48 PM

  13. Question… what about whole grain wheat,oats,12 grain breads….acceptable or not

    Comment by Barbara Johnson — August 5, 2021 @ 9:49 AM

  14. Hello Teri. It’s never too late to start taking your brain health seriously. Become a Brain Warrior and see how your brain’s health is intertwined with your overall health. You might find the Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast interesting. You can find the podcast here: https://brainwarriorswaypodcast.com/

    Comment by Amen Clinics — August 5, 2021 @ 11:11 AM

  15. Hello Barbara, thank you for your question. You can find more information on how alcohol affects the brain in one of our many blogs that discuss the topic here: https://www.amenclinics.com/?s=alcohol

    Comment by Amen Clinics — August 5, 2021 @ 11:12 AM

  16. Hello Paris, thank you for reaching out. Amen Clinics has a supplement brand started by Dr. Amen. They offer a plant-based protein supplement that can be found here: https://brainmd.com/catalogsearch/result/?q=protein

    Comment by Amen Clinics — August 6, 2021 @ 4:05 PM

  17. Hello Jacqoline, thank you for reaching out. Here is a link to our ADD Type Test: https://theaddquiz.com/.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — August 6, 2021 @ 6:18 PM

  18. Hello Marion, thank you for reaching out. We’d be happy to contact you with more information about our services and consultations. We look forward to speaking with you!

    Comment by Amen Clinics — August 6, 2021 @ 6:20 PM

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