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ADHD Series Part V: “What are you eating?” The ADHD/food connection

ADHD Series Part V: “What are you eating?” The ADHD/food connection

According to a study done by the New York Times in 2013, the number of children being diagnosed with ADHD has increased 53% during the past decade.

53%!?!? That is a staggering and scary statistic.

Professionals agree there are several possible explanations for this increase including—history of under diagnosing, over exposure to new chemicals in processed food, and society’s consumption of digital media—just to name a few.

I would like to focus on just one-what are we feeding our children.

Research suggests that eating certain foods may trigger and causing ADHD like symptoms, not ADHD. Simply put, when we eat specific foods (listed below) our minds and bodies respond as if we did have ADHD. Meaning that the massive increase in children diagnosed may be due to food induced ADHD like symptoms, and not ADHD itself.

Frank Barnhill, MD, an ADHD expert and the author of “Mistaken for ADHD” said “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”

Insight from an ADHD brain

It’s hard for some of us to comprehend what living with ADHD is truly like. One father that I worked with shared his experience of having childhood ADHD. He said

“The only way I can describe having ADHD as a kid, is to tell people to pretend that they are standing on the median in the middle of the freeway. Once you’ve pictured this, now add all of the senses. What do you see, hear, smell, taste, feel? It’s being completely overstimulated all the time.

It’s confusing and overwhelming because traffic is flying by on both sides, you want to look at everything but can’t. Each car that zooms by represents a thought. You see the car coming, follow it for a few seconds and then it’s gone and you’re already focusing on the next wave of cars that are coming. It’s incredibly challenging to focus on anything for more than a few moments.”

What an insightful way to describe childhood ADHD. The struggle is real.

Now add the effects of a diet that makes these symptoms worse.

Chew on this…

New research from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that on average 1 out of 5 teenage boys have been diagnosed with ADHD or exhibit enough symptoms for a diagnosis. However, 40% of these teenage boys leave ADHD behind when they reach their mid 20’s.

In a study reviewing the significant environmental factors in those boys who “outgrew” ADHD symptoms, their change of diet was one of the largest single indicators.

The most common age to be diagnosed is between 14-17.

Think about what a 14-17 year old boy eats every day? Candy, candy bars, chips and soda-it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell us that teenagers are missing out on the vitamins and minerals that come with eating a well-balanced diet.

Most of my meals as a teenager came from under the heat lamp at the local gas station. My experience would definitely support Dr. Barnhill’s theory.

Eat these up!

The following food groups and vitamins have been proven to improve attention;


Foods rich in protein can have beneficial effects on ADHD symptoms. Protein-rich foods like eggs, lean beef jerky and chicken are used by the body to make neurotransmitters (which are the chemicals released by brain cells to communicate with each other). Protein also reduces spikes in blood sugar. These spikes in blood sugar feel like a rush of energy to the body and brain, which increases hyperactivity. Small protein snacks throughout the day will help stabilize blood sugar,energy and hyperactive swings.

Laura Stevens, M.S. and a nutritionist at Purdue University and author of “12 Effective Ways to Help Your ADHD Child” stated “Because the body makes brain-awakening neurotransmitters when you eat protein, start your day with a breakfast that has protein in it. Don’t stop there. Look for ways to slip in lean protein during the day as well.”

Other healthy, protein rich snacks include lean beef jerky, cheese, Greek yogurt, and green smoothies. Green, leafy vegetables have more protein than most parents think and should be a major staple of their diet.


The never ending miraculous work of Omega 3’s is at it again. Doesn’t it seem like Omega 3’s could figure out world peace if we gave it a chance?

Omega 3s are found in cold water fish like tuna, sardines and salmon. Dr. Sven Ostlund from Goteberg University in Sweden performed a study where a group of children with ADHD were given fish oil each day for 6 months. Results indicated a huge impact on brain and nerve cell function including over 50% reduction in ADHD symptoms in 25% of the students.

Another study showed that Omega-3s tend to break down more readily in the bodies of patients with ADHD than in those without the condition. This means that the vitamin is hitting the blood stream quicker, and parents and doctors alike report that the improvement in cognitive function and mental focus can be dramatic.

Balanced Meals

Hundreds of parents and children have reported that medication is simply not enough. A diet consisting of vegetables, fruits, complex carbohydrates and plenty of protein tends to create more consistent behaviors.

Don’t “Taste the Rainbow”

The Skittles advertising looks like a ton of fun with kids riding rainbows and having fruit juice waterfalls pour into their mouths. This is the perfect storm really when it comes to which foods to avoid. Artificial flavoring, food coloring, food dyes, artificial sweetener and no nutritional content.

What I find most funny, is that these children look like they should be advertising for “How to get ADHD” as they run, climb, and jump off of rainbows and waterfalls.

High-sugar foods and processed snacks

Several studies suggest that children with ADHD respond negatively to large amounts of sugar. One study conducted by Yale University concluded that the more sugar hyperactive children consumed, the more destructive, inattentive and restless they became.

Artificial Dyes and Preservatives

Studies published in The LancetPediatrics, and The Journal of Pediatrics suggest that children with ADHD are adversely affected by food additives. A recent study indicates that artificial food coloring and flavors make even non-ADHD kids hyperactive.

It’s hard to avoid all candy and sugar, and let’s be honest it tastes really good. Try to limit or avoid “The Perfect Storm” candy items when possible. These are food items which contain several, if not all of the ingredients above.

Here is a list of “perfect storm” items.

  • fruit snacks
  • colorful cereals like Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms
  • fruit punch
  • fruit and sports drinks
  • jello
  • taffy candy
  • Soda

Difficulty digesting the cost?

It is more expensive to eat healthy, protein rich, nutritious and well-balanced meals. I cannot argue this. However, what I can and will argue is that the cost of treating ADHD is far more expensive than a healthy nutritional meal plan. Here are some of the costs associated with ADHD.

The Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that the total cost of treating ADHD with medication, doctor’s visits and counseling sessions is likely between $150 billion to $200 billion a year, which when broken down equals approximately $1500 per person. When variables such as productivity losses, tutors, mentoring are factored in the amount rises to almost $2300 a year.

Other variables include higher premiums for health care coverage, sleep medications that counteract the ADHD medications, and parents taking time off of work to facilitate appointments.

After factoring in all of the independent variables, the costs of treating ADHD are likely closer to $2500 per year per person.

Polishing it off

Regardless of whether your child has been accurately diagnosed with ADHD, or just struggles with ADHD-like symptoms a few small changes to their diet can drastically improve their behavior.

Some foods create ADHD-like hyperactive and inattentive symptoms, while others have been proven to stabilize hyperactivity and improve attention. Substitute in a few more healthy snacks this week and see what happens. The goal is improvement, not perfection.

A great way to understand how much food impacts your child’s behavior is by using a behavioral/food intake chart. This can be done on a simple white board, poster board or even your phone.

Do your best to track what your child eats through out the day, then rate your child’s behavior on a scale of 1-10.

Focus specifically on times of the day that your child seems to struggle the most. This will help you better understand which foods help or hurt your child’s ADHD symptoms. 

ADHD series part I: Buckle up-an intro to ADHD

ADHD series part II: helping parents understand the ADHD diagnosis

ADHD series part III: An ADHD treatment regimen that works

ADHD series part IV: Preventive Teaching and intrinsic motivation

ADHD series part V: “What are you eating?” the ADHD/food connection

ADHD series part VI: Exercise-the other ADHD medication

ADHD series part VII: Improve ADHD by understanding emotional intelligence

ADHD series part VIII: Your inattentive child lost in the crowd

ADHD series part IX: Raising an ADHD generation

5 Ways to Help Your ADHD Child Calm Down