Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that affects a person’s ability to concentrate. It makes them easily distracted, impulsive, or excessively energetic.

ADHD is typically treated with a combination of behavior therapy and medications. In addition to these treatments, diet and lifestyle changes have been shown to be effective for those with ADHD.

In the 1970s, Dr. Benjamin Feingold, 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 that these dietary changes caused a noticeable reduction in symptoms of asthma, hives, and even behavioral problems.

The Feingold diet, and variations on it, have since been researched and used by parents hoping to help their children manage ADHD symptoms.

The Feingold diet has not been proven effective in reducing symptoms in children with ADHD. However, research such as a 2015 study has shown that children with ADHD are more likely to have a sensitivity to ingredients eliminated in the Feingold diet. This includes synthetic food colorings.

What to avoid

The Feingold diet requires you to avoid certain foods and products believed to contribute to hyperactivity. They include:

Items that Feingold recommended eliminating include:

  • fruits: apples, apricots, berries, cherries, cucumbers, currants, grapes, nectarines, oranges, peaches, peppers, pickles, plums, prunes, tangerines, tomatoes
  • nuts: almonds
  • herbs and spices: cloves, mint flavoring
  • beverages: coffee, tea

What to eat

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

  • fruits: bananas, cantaloupe, dates, grapefruit, honeydew melon, kiwifruit, lemons, mangoes, papayas, pears, pineapples, squash, watermelon, zucchini
  • vegetables: beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, kale, lettuce, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, spinach, sweet corn, sweet potatoes
  • legumes: beans, bean sprouts, lentils, peas

Other dietary patterns, such as the few foods diet, have also been credited with helping reduce ADHD symptoms.

The few foods diet is also known as:

  • an oligoantigenic diet
  • an elimination diet
  • a hypoallergenic diet

It focuses on the elimination of foods known to cause allergic reactions.

The few foods diet is not intended to be used as a long-term treatment.

Its goal is to help identify children with diet sensitivities. After a child completes the few foods diet and learns which foods they should avoid, they can be placed on a diet tailored to their individual needs.

The few foods diet is time-consuming, and studies into its benefits for ADHD have yielded mixed results, according to a 2012 literature review.

However, a small 2020 study of 10 children and teens found that most of them saw a 40 percent improvement in the ADHD Rating Scale IV (ARS) after following this diet for 4 weeks.

It’s important to note that some of the professionals who evaluated the study participants provided non-blinded ratings. This means that they were aware of which treatment the study participants had received. Others provided blinded ratings.

A 2021 study involving 16 children with ADHD demonstrated that following this type of diet helped identify food sensitivities. The researchers found that most study participants were sensitive to more than one food and that food sensitivities increased ADHD symptoms.

What to avoid

Items to avoid on a few foods diet — because they’re known for causing allergies — include:

What to eat

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

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

Nutrient deficiencies are common, and some have been detected in children with ADHD. Supplementation may be necessary to maintain optimal nutrient levels.

Certain supplements have also been shown to improve ADHD symptoms such as inattention and impulsivity.

Nutrients associated with ADHD include:

If you’re interested in giving your child dietary supplements, consult a healthcare professional first to ensure the supplements are safe and appropriate for your child’s health needs.

According to a 2014 literature review, the research up to that point suggested that ADHD diets provided small benefits for some children. The authors noted that more rigorous studies were needed. This is partly because many existing studies focused on children who were already suspected to have dietary problems, such as allergies or sensitivities.

A 2017 literature review noted that a few foods diet substantially improved ADHD symptoms when compared to other dietary interventions. These interventions included eliminating artificial colorings or supplementing with polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

The researchers concluded that a few foods diet could be a promising treatment for children who do not respond to ADHD medication or are too young to take it.

According to a 2021 study with 47 participants, children with ADHD would benefit from dietary measures such as:

  • excluding the following items:
    • food additives
    • gluten
    • eggs and dairy products, which is done in the few foods diet
    • foods high in salicylates, which is done in the Feingold diet
    • foods high in sulfates
  • restricting carbohydrates, which is done in the keto diet

The researchers also noted that children with obesity had higher rates of ADHD than children without obesity and that these measures might help them achieve a moderate weight.

Did you know?

There have been many studies on the effects of food color additives, and the results are mixed. More research is needed to definitively link food color additives to the symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Some medical experts are skeptical about putting children on strict diets, as noted in a 2013 editorial.

Families may find it difficult or time-consuming to implement a diet that excludes so many dietary staples.

Food is also a large part of social situations. Asking a child to follow a restrictive diet may cause them to feel left out. Most of the foods that are not allowed by the suggested diets are easily available at school, at friends’ houses, and other locations children may visit. This can make it difficult to get your child to follow the diet.

In addition, a 2019 literature review found no clear evidence to support elimination diets or other dietary interventions for ADHD.

According to the researchers, children with ADHD are less likely to practice healthy habits than children without ADHD. The researchers also noted that experts do not fully understand how an unhealthy diet affects ADHD, but children with ADHD would probably benefit from healthier lifestyle choices.

The ideal dietary pattern for the majority of children and adults is a nutrient-dense diet that’s low in ultra-processed foods. Children with and without ADHD will benefit from following a healthy diet that provides optimal nutrition.

Foods to enjoy include:

Try to limit or avoid:

These tips can help you or your child avoid artificial flavorings and colorings, maintain a moderate weight, and get enough nutrients.