ADHD and Diet



Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that can affect children, adolescents, and even adults.  The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that 3% to 5% of children have ADHD. Some experts believe that ADHD may occur in 8% to 10% of school-aged children.

In general, children with ADHD

  • have difficulty concentrating and paying attention
  •  seem unable to follow directions or complete taks
  • are eaily bored and/or frustrated

Adults with ADHD may:

  • struggle with time management
  • have difficulty getting organized and setting goals
  • struggle to find and keep employment

Sometimes ADHD coexists along with another condition, such as a sleep disorder, learning disability, conduct disorder, anxiety, depression, bipolarity, Tourette syndrome, or oppositional defiant disorder.   

The exact causes of ADHD are not known; however, there are many factors that may contribute to the condition, including: genes (it often runs in families), nutrition (some food additives are suspect), environmental factors (mothers smoking or drinking while pregnant), brain injuries, and social environment.  

Due to a variation in symptoms, there are three subtypes of ADHD:

1) predominantly inattentive,

2) predominantly hyperactive-impulsive, and

3) combined.  

Inattention symptoms include not listening, not paying attention to details, failing to keep on task, being unable to follow instructions, being forgetful or distracted, and losing things that are needed to complete tasks.  Hyperactivity-impulsivity symptoms include squirming, fidgeting, running or climbing at inappropriate times, having difficulty playing quietly, interrupting, and getting up often while seated.

One reason that three subtypes of ADHD exist may be that patients have different levels of neurotransmitters, which alter behavior.   Those with inattentive ADHD have changes to their norepinephrine transporter gene (affecting norepinephrine levels); those with hyperactivity-impulsive ADHD have changes to their dopamine transport gene (affecting dopamine levels); those with combined ADHD have an altered choline transporter gene.  Testing is available to accurately access neurotransmitter levels.  

Effective ADHD treatment can include a combination of lifestyles changes, medications (stimulants and nonstimulants are available), and behavioral therapies.  

Although scientific research related to ADHD diets is limited, many health experts believe that diet may play a role in curbing ADHD symptoms. 

Diet suggestions include:

  • Eat more complex carbohydrates (especially in the evening, which may improve sleep) – vegetables, apples, pears, tangerines, grapefruit, kiwis, and oranges.  Buy organic fruits and vegetables when possible; pesticides contain arsenic, a neurotoxin that can damage brain tissue.  
  •  Eat fewer simple carbohydrates – products made from white flour, white rice, candy, corn syrup, honey, and sugar.  Recent research has shown that people with ADHD are more likely to be sensitive to food dyes and other additives typically found in processed foods.   
  •  Eat more protein (especially in the morning and after school, to improve concentration) – eggs, meat, nuts, beans, cheese
  •  Eat more Omega-3 fatty acids – olive and canola oil, tuna, salmon, walnuts, Brazil nuts



Jennifer Cebulak

Research Editor


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The Canary Club is an educational advisory group with a team of medical advisors headed by Richard Shames, M.D.