ADHD Diet & Nutrition

Build a Better Relationship with Food to Benefit Your ADHD Brain

The ADHD brain needs healthy, whole foods and nutrients to perform at optimal levels. But ADHD can sometimes impede healthy eating, leading to a chicken-or-egg quandary (literally). Learn more about how food impacts ADHD and how to give your brain what it needs, but sometimes resists.

Man cutting a bell pepper in his kitchen.

Developing a healthy relationship with food is a prerequisite for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). Research indicates that healthy eating supports a healthy ADHD brain. At the same time, science tells us that ADHD symptoms significantly impede and impair individuals’ ability to make positive choices around food and resist not-so-positive temptations. Developing an ADHD nutrition plan is truly a chicken-or-egg challenge.

Here, learn about the impact of food and nutrients on the ADHD brain, plus practical ways to build a better relationship with food. The road toward a healthier lifestyle is long; you’ll never get there without taking a few first steps.

Proper Nutrition: Your ADHD Brain on Food

The ADHD brain is sensitive. What we put into our bodies affects brain functioning in the moment and beyond.

Antioxidants and the ADHD Brain

Foods high in antioxidants — like kale, beans, and many berry varieties — protect the brain from oxidative stress, the “waste” produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells. Unhealthy foods do not remove this waste, and foods with lots of refined sugars may even lead to its buildup.

Caffeine and the ADHD Brain

Caffeine can unlock benefits to the adult ADHD brain when consumed in moderate amounts — and when in the form of coffee, not soda. Individual responses, however, are based on many variables. Caffeine has been shown to improve working memory, decrease fatigue, and speed reaction times. Some adults with ADHD also say drinking a small amount an hour or two before bed helps with sleep, as it helps them focus on falling asleep and not be distracted by other thoughts. This varies widely though, as some adults with ADHD have major disruptions in sleep if they have caffeine, in any amount, after a certain time of day. Excess caffeine can also cause increased irritability and anxiety.

[Free Download: Brain Food: Healthy Eating Tips to Counter ADHD Symptoms]

Serotonin and the ADHD Brain

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter implicated in our mood, sleep, and appetite regulation. The majority of serotonin is actually produced in the gastrointestinal tract, which is lined with millions of neurons. These neurons are influenced by “good” bacteria that can improve the absorption of nutrients and activate the neural pathway from the gut to the brain. Lean proteins, seafood, fruits and vegetables, and unprocessed grains (without refined sugars) have shown to increase serotonin production.

Refined Sugar and the ADHD Brain

Foods high in refined sugars can impair brain function (namely, executive function) and can even exacerbate mood disorder symptoms. Why? These foods can promote a sense of satiety, making it easy to skip out on proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, and other important nutrients that are protective against these and other ADHD symptoms. As the saying goes in nutrition science, it’s what you are not eating that is as important as what you are.

Proper Nutrition: A Healthy Relationship with Food

Why is healthy eating so difficult for adults with ADHD? The ADHD brain, for one, is bored, under-stimulated, and uninhibited. It produces less dopamine, which sometimes leads to seeking stimulation in foods — especially in simple carbohydrates and refined sugars that satisfy the dopamine-starved brain, but also cause it to crash.

The executive dysfunction associated with ADHD is another factor. Planning meals, making decisions around food, and paying attention to how we eat can be overwhelming to a brain with poor executive functioning. Another impacted skill is self-awareness – differentiating between feelings of hunger, boredom, anxiety, and satiation can be a challenge.

[Read: Healthy Eating Habits for Impulsive, Dopamine-Starved ADHD Brains]

We don’t lay out these factors to make the person with ADHD feel shame, but rather to clearly explain how their brain is wired, and how to realistically work with it.

The Basics: Good ADHD Foods and Nutrients

  • Protein. The ADHD brain responds well to protein — eggs, cheese sticks, and nuts are all popular snacks, but each individual should find protein sources they can easily incorporate into their days.
  • Complex carbs. Vegetables, fruits, barley, and quinoa are great sources of energy that won’t deplete rapidly like simple carbs (corn syrup, sugar, etc.) do.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are found in tuna, salmon, nuts, and olive oil, and are very helpful for the ADHD brain. Studies show that it helps decrease inattention and hyperactivity while boosting working memory, emotional regulation, and sleep.
  • B-vitamins found in legumes, whole grains, beans, seeds, spinach, and avocado are considered super foods that cut down on sugar cravings, too.
  • Zinc, iron, magnesium, and fiber help to regulate dopamine production and keep ADHD symptoms in check.

Mindful Eating Tips

  • Pay close attention to how different foods make you feel in the moment, hours later, and the next day. Use a journal to help.
  • Practice deep breathing before each meal. While eating, put the utensil down every time you take a bite. Pick it back up when you finish chewing.
  • Try not to get up for more portions until you finish the first. Keep food off the table as a way to assess if you really want to get up for the additional helping. Seat yourself accordingly – try facing away from the food.
  • Eat as if you need to describe every aspect of the meal to someone who has never tasted that food before.
  • Look for easy replacements (zero calorie soda instead of regular) if the goal is to cut down on sugars or calories.
  • When eating out, ask for half the meal “to go.” Look at nutrition information for restaurants online to inform your order.

Behavioral Strategies

  • Structure your evenings with activities to avoid boredom, which causes us to gravitate to excess food for stimulation.
  • Make a list of alternative stimulating behaviors and keep it ready for referral.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Sleep deprivation is a major contributing factor to other health issues.
  • Read nutritional labels and make it a habit. The fewer ingredients you recognize, the less healthy the food is.

The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “Eat This, Not That: Healthy Eating Habits for a Healthier ADHD Brain” by Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D. (podcast episode #332), which was broadcast live on November 10, 2020.

Proper Nutrition for ADHD: Next Steps

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