5 Food Items to Avoid with ADHD

Written by Jane Hoppe and Rena Goldman | Published on February 26, 2015
Medically Reviewed by The Healthline Medical Team on February 26, 2015

Can avoiding certain foods limit your child's ADHD?

Getting a Handle on ADHD

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 7 percent of children and 4 to 6 percent of adults have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is a neurobehavioral disorder with no known cure. Millions of people with this condition have a hard time organizing and completing set tasks. People with ADHD can improve their daily functions with medication and behavioral therapy. 

Keep reading to learn more, including how avoiding certain foods may help your ADHD treatment. 

Helping Kids Succeed in Life

ADHD makes it harder for children to succeed with their studies as well as their social life. They might have trouble concentrating on lessons or finishing homework and schoolwork may appear to be haphazard. Listening can be difficult and they could have emotional outbursts in class. Children with ADHD may talk or interrupt so much that they can’t have two-way conversations. These and other symptoms must be present for a prolonged period for an ADHD diagnosis. Successfully managing these symptoms increases a child’s chances of developing basic life skills.

ADHD Also Interferes with Adult Life

Adults also need to minimize ADHD symptoms to have successful relationships and satisfying careers. Focusing on and finishing projects is necessary and expected at work. Things like forgetfulness, excessive fidgeting, difficulty paying attention, and poor listening skills are symptoms of ADHD that can make finishing projects challenging and can be detrimental in a work environment.

Add a Little Oomph to Symptom Management

As you work with your doctor, you can give a little boost to traditional approaches to symptom management by avoiding certain foods. Scientists may not have a cure yet, but they have found some interesting connections between ADHD behaviors and certain foods. Eating a healthy, balanced diet is important and by avoiding certain foods, you may notice a decrease in ADHD symptoms. 

Chemical Culprits

Some researchers have found that there may be a link between food dyes and hyperactivity. They continue to study this connection, but in the meantime, check ingredient lists for artificial coloring. The FDA requires these chemicals to be listed on food packages:

  • FD&C Blue No. 1 and No. 2
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5 (tartrazine) and No. 6
  • FD&C Green No. 3
  • Orange B
  • Citrus Red No. 2
  • FD&C Red No. 3 and No. 40 (allura)

Other dyes may or may not be listed, but be cautious with anything colored that you put in your mouth. Think:

  • toothpaste
  • vitamins
  • fruit and sports drinks
  • hard candy
  • fruit-flavored cereals
  • barbecue sauce
  • canned fruit
  • fruit snacks
  • gelatin powders
  • cake mixes

Dyes and Preservatives

When an influential study combined synthetic food dyes with the preservative sodium benzoate, it found increased hyperactivity. You might find sodium benzoate in carbonated drinks, salad dressings, and condiments. Other chemical preservatives to look for are:

  • butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • sodium nitrate
  • tert-Butylhydroquinone (TBHQ)

You can experiment by avoiding these additives one at a time and seeing if behaviors improve.

Dyes and preservatives may be worth taking a look at, but it should be noted that the FDA reports that studies have not yet proven a connection between synthetic additives and hyperactivity in 2011.

Simple Sugars and Artificial Sweeteners

The jury’s still out on sugar’s effect on hyperactivity. Even so, limiting sugar in your family’s diet makes sense. Look out for any kind of sugar or syrup on food labels to eat fewer simple sugars. 

Salicylates

When does an apple a day not keep the doctor away? When the person eating the apple is sensitive to salicylate. This is a natural substance abundant in red apples and other healthy foods like almonds, cranberries, grapes, and tomatoes. Salicylates are also found in aspirin and other pain medication. Dr. Benjamin Feingold eliminated artificial dyes and flavors and salicylates from the diets of his hyperactive patients in the 1970s. He claimed 30 to 50 percent of them improved.

Allergens

Like salicylates, allergens can be found in healthy foods. But they might affect brain functions, triggering hyperactivity or inattentiveness, if your body is sensitive to them. You might find it helpful to stop eating — one at a time — the top eight food allergens:

  • wheat
  • milk
  • peanuts
  • tree nuts
  • eggs
  • soy
  • fish
  • shellfish

Tracking food-behavior connections makes your elimination experiment more effective. A doctor or dietitian can help you with this process.

Get in the Game Early

ADHD can pose serious obstacles to a satisfying life. Proper medical diagnosis and management is critical. Only 40 percent of children with ADHD leave the disorder behind as they mature. Adults with ADHD have higher odds of also having depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. The sooner you control your symptoms, the better your quality of life. So work with your doctor and behavioral coach, and cut chemicals, curb your sweet tooth, and take special precautions with food allergies.

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