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The ADHD Diet: What Works, What Doesn’t

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that affects a person’s ability to concentrate and makes them easily distracted, impulsive, or excessively energetic. There are medical treatments available for ADHD, but another approach is to try to control symptoms through at-home means, such as your diet.

In the 1970s, Dr. Benjamin Feingold, the Chief Emeritus of the Department of Allergy at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital and Permanente Medical Group, began advising his patients to make changes in their diets. Dr. Feingold reported these dietary changes caused noticeable reduction in symptoms of asthma, hives, and even behavioral problems.

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Dr. Feingold’s diet, and variations on it, have since been researched and used by parents hoping to help their children improve ADHD symptoms. Research hasn’t conclusively determined the diet helps everyone with ADHD, but it has been shown to help some people with the condition.

How Does One Follow the ADHD Diet?

The ADHD diet involves avoiding certain foods believed to contribute to hyperactivity. They include:

  • artificial colorings, such as red 40 and yellow 5
  • artificial flavorings, such as synthetic vanilla
  • artificial sweeteners, such as:
    • aspartame
    • saccharin
    • sucralose
  • chemicals naturally found in some foods, such as salicylates found in:
    • apricots
    • berries
    • tomatoes
  • preservatives, such as:
    • butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
    • butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
    • tert-Butylhydroquinone (TBHQ)

Foods that Dr. Feingold recommended eliminating on his recommended ADHD diet include:

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  • almonds
  • apples
  • apricots
  • berries
  • cherries
  • cloves
  • coffee
  • cucumbers and pickles
  • currants
  • grapes
  • mint flavoring
  • nectarines
  • oranges
  • peaches
  • peppers
  • plums
  • prunes
  • tangerines
  • tea
  • tomatoes

Though not a complete list, here are some of the foods that are recommended on the Feingold Diet:

  • bananas
  • beans
  • bean sprouts
  • beets
  • Brussels sprouts
  • cabbage
  • cantaloupe
  • carrots
  • cauliflower
  • celery
  • dates
  • grapefruit
  • honeydew
  • kale
  • kiwi
  • lemons
  • lentils
  • lettuce
  • mangoes
  • mushrooms
  • onion
  • papaya
  • pears
  • peas
  • pineapple
  • potatoes
  • spinach
  • squash
  • sweet corn
  • sweet potato
  • watermelon
  • zucchini

The Feingold Diet is not the only diet parents may try for children with ADHD. Other examples of diets include:

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Ketogenic Diet

This is a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet that has been studied for its use in treating epilepsy. Children with epilepsy often display symptoms of ADHD, and the ketogenic diet has been shown in a study published in the journal Pediatrics to help control seizures and improve behavior.

Oligoantigenic (Hypoallergenic or Elimination) Diet

This diet focuses on elimination foods known to cause allergic reactions, such as:

  • cow’s milk
  • cheese
  • wheat cereal
  • eggs
  • chocolate
  • nuts
  • citrus fruits

The diet also emphasizes foods known not to cause allergic reactions, such as:

  • lamb
  • potatoes
  • tapioca
  • carrots
  • peas
  • pears

The Pediatrics journal study showed mixed results in proving this diet to be beneficial.

Nutrient-Specific Diets

Other diets you may utilize in an attempt to reduce ADHD symptoms include those that boost a particular nutrient, such as:

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  • zinc
  • iron
  • fish oil

What Research Supports Following an ADHD Diet?

A study published in the Lancet Journal reported observing children with ADHD as they followed the restricted elimination diet for five weeks. The study found that ADHD symptoms improved during the elimination phase of the diet. However, ADHD symptoms returned when foods were reintroduced into the diet.

There have been many studies on the affects of food color additives. However, the studies show mixed results. More research is needed to link food color additives to ADHD symptoms.

What Research Does Not Support Following an ADHD Diet?

Many doctors are skeptical about putting children on strict diets. The Harvard Mental Health Letter says that it is impossible to tell which children will benefit from these diets.

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The Mayo Clinic warns that restrictive diets can make it difficult for children to get all of the nutrients that they need.

It’s also important to remember that food is a large part of social situations. Asking your child to follow a restrictive diet can cause them to feel left out. Most of the foods that aren’t allowed by the suggested diets are easily available at school and at friends’ houses. This can make it difficult to get your child to follow the diet.

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What Is the Outlook for Those Wishing to Eat a Special Diet for ADHD?

The ideal diet for both children and adults is a diet that consists of:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • whole grains
  • lean proteins
  • unsaturated fats

You should avoid:

  • fast food
  • trans fats
  • saturated fats
  • refined carbohydrates

This diet helps children avoid artificial flavorings and colorings, and it also helps them maintain a healthy weight and get enough nutrients.

Article resources

Diet and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. (2009, June 1). Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Diet-and-attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder

  • McCann, D. , Barrett, A., Cooper, A., Crumpler, D., Dalen, L., Grimshaw, K. … Stevenson, J. (2007, September 6). Food additives and hyperactive behavior in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: A randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial [Abstract]. The Lancet, 370(9598), 1560-1567. Retrieved from http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(07)61306-3/abstract
  • Millichap, J. G., & Yee, M. M. (2012, February ). The diet factor in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder [Abstract]. Pediatrics. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/01/04/peds.2011-2199
  • Pellser, L. M., Frankena, K., Toorman, J., Savelkoul, H. F., Dubois, A. E., Pereira, R. R. … Buitelaar, J. K. (2011). Effects of a restricted elimination die on the behavior of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (INCA study): a randomized controlled trial. Lancet, 377, 494-503. Retrieved from http://www.zoelho.com/ZoelhoNL/Publish/Pelsser-The-Lancet-2011-Publication-INCA-study.pdf
  • Your child’s diet: A cause and a cure of ADHD? (2015, November 21). Retrieved from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/adhd/Pages/Your-Childs-Diet-A-Cause-and-a-Cure-of-ADHD.aspx
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