Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can have a major impact on learning and socialization 12. Behavioral therapy and medication are the key modes of treatment, but people have been interested in the role of diet in ADHD for years. While there's no solid evidence to support the need for any special diet other than a healthy one, it's also possible that some people may be more sensitive to the intake of specific items than others. Elimination diets, tracked in a food diary, are sometimes used to help diagnose and treat food intolerances that could potentially contribute to symptoms associated with ADHD.
Elimination Diets and Supplements
An elimination diet is based on the theory that certain foods or food additives trigger hallmark symptoms of hyperactivity, inattention, impulsivity or distractibility, and that eliminating those foods helps improve symptoms. While elimination diets are not part of the standard approach to ADHD today, they are still in use. According to the 2009 National Institute for Health and Care Excellence clinical guidelines titled "Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Diagnosis and Management of ADHD in Children, Young People and Adults," the data in support of elimination diets are limited 12. These guidelines also note that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with small benefits in some studies, though other studies showed no improvements. The guidelines don't recommend supplements as a treatment for ADHD.
- An elimination diet is based on the theory that certain foods or food additives trigger hallmark symptoms of hyperactivity, inattention, impulsivity or distractibility, and that eliminating those foods helps improve symptoms.
- These guidelines also note that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with small benefits in some studies, though other studies showed no improvements.
ADHD Meal Plan
A healthy and balanced diet is recommended for ADHD -- along with plenty of exercise. If certain foods, including those with colorings and additives, seem to increase the symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity and/or impulsive behavior, try keeping a food diary, and consult your doctor or dietitian about possible dietary triggers. While food intolerances and allergies are not thought to be the cause of ADHD, they may contribute to overlapping symptoms in some people.
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- American Academy of Pediatrics: ADHD: Clinical Practice Guideline for the Diagnosis, Evaluation, and Treatment of Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder in Children and Adolescents
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Diagnosis and Management of ADHD in Children, Young People and Adults: Dietary Interventions
- American Journal of Psychiatry: Nonpharmacological Interventions for ADHD: Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses of Randomized Controlled Trials of Dietary and Psychological Treatments
- Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America: Restriction and Elimination Diets in ADHD Treatment
- Lancet: Food Additives and Hyperactive Behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old Children in the Community: A Randomised, Double-Blinded, Placebo-Controlled Trial
- Epstein JN, Loren RE. Changes in the Definition of ADHD in DSM-5: Subtle but Important. Neuropsychiatry (London). 2013;3(5):455-458. doi:10.2217/npy.13.59
- American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC; 2013.
Jill Corleone is a registered dietitian and health coach who has been writing and lecturing on diet and health for more than 15 years. Her work has been featured on the Huffington Post, Diabetes Self-Management and in the book "Noninvasive Mechanical Ventilation," edited by John R. Bach, M.D. Corleone holds a Bachelor of Science in nutrition.