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Does an ADHD Diet work? And What is it exactly?
First, let’s start with the Basics:
An ADHD Diet is truly just another way of saying a health-conscious brain diet. A diet where the nutrients, food and supplements we put into our body are designated to help our brain function optimally.
Is there specifically an ADHD diet?
Not that I have found. Many have written books titled: ADHD Diet, or ADHD nutrition treatment, etc.
But research is still new in the role diet can play in treating ADHD. Because we are only on the cusp of understanding what is known as the gut-brain-axis (in other words, the role our gut health plays into our brain health) more research needs to be done.
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And here’s the short of it:
Many of the current books on ADHD dieting seem to all contribute to the stigma that medication is not the best solution for ADHD because of the possible side effects.
My truth to that argument:
A comprehensive approach to ADHD treatment with both medication, diet, lifestyle changes, and therapy is the BEST solution for ADHD. Period.
Research supports the use of medicines among treatments for efficacy in lowering suicide rates, as well as substance abuse rates later in life. With therapy, medication is used in the smallest doses and can still be effective.
So flat out, medicine works for ADHD.
Just like it works for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and many other mental illnesses we don’t seem to receive stigma around medication for.
But tell people your child has ADHD, and that you medicate, will receive mixed responses from those who simply do not know the research.
Now, I am not a doctor.
I don’t proclaim to be an expert (you can read my entire disclaimer and disclosure in my Terms and Conditons). But I am a mom who cares very deeply about my children, and the genetics they are predisposed to. Treating their ADHD in the best way possible was always the plan, and that looks different for every person in our family, including myself.
As an adult with ADHD, and someone who did not know I had it for the majority of my life, my ADHD now has some pitfalls that make medication a secondary choice.
Diet, lifestyle changes, and therapy are best suited to me.
But why is that?
Because I don’t only suffer from ADHD anymore. As an adult, my life choices and my untreated ADHD have also led to severe anxiety, PTSD from relationship problems, and I have an underlying sensory processing disorder that exacerbates the symptoms of the others.
Could medication help? Possibly. Could it make my anxiety much worse? Likely.
Choosing treatment for your ADHD or your child’s ADHD should always be based on Best Approach Possible.
For one of my children that is medication, lifestyle changes, exercise, and therapy and a eat more of this and less of that approach to his diet.
For my other child, it may look completely different (we are still in the diagnosis phase of understanding his brain).
And for me, it’s an ADHD diet (low-inflammation diet), lifestyle changes, therapy, and exercise.
Will this ADHD Diet work for me?
In Dr. Daniel Amen’s book, he looks at the 7 different ways ADHD can present in the brain.[Affiliate Link] For 6 out of 7 of these types of ADHD the type of diet I am going to describe works extremely well.
If unfortunately you are dealing with Dr. Amen’s 7th type of ADHD (coined by him as The Ring of Fire ADHD), I highly recommend picking up his book and reading for yourself [affiliate link] what will work for you or your child. It’s very different than this approach, so it would benefit you greatly to read the book. Or at least skim it at your local library or bookstore.
The Ins and Outs of an ADHD Diet.
The studies that have been done regarding the link of ADHD to diet are primarily elimination, low inflammation diets.
Eliminating high-inflammatory foods.
What are the high inflammatory foods:
And any additives that contain the above. (corn: think sucralose, fructose corn syrup, etc. Eggs think vitellin and anything with the word Ova- in it. Gluten: modified food starch among others)
At this point, you’re likely thinking: What’s left?! Lettuce?
I assure you there are many delicious healthy foods left on the table. You will just have to be willing to find them and cook them.
When I decided to approach a low-inflammation diet, I followed the diet taught by J.J. Virgin. [Affiliate Link] The Virgin Diet gave me my beginnings of what I have now evolved into a more intuitive eating pattern. I’d say I maintain at about 80% of what she teaches, but I allow myself corn and eggs. If you’d like to read her book, I still highly recommend it for weight loss in adults. I lost 40 lbs in three months and kept it off with her approach. As I said, I adapted most of her teachings as a principle and have maintained a healthy lifestyle since.
This ADHD Diet focuses on the Three Main Inflammatory foods first.
If after that, you are not seeing improvement, it’s then that I suggest going deeper and cutting out others.
Starting with Eliminating Gluten/Wheat, Dairy, and Soy for an ADHD Diet.
If you’ve never gone gluten free before, it may be a bit of a shock. Doing this in baby steps is your best option.
I have created ADHD diet cheat sheets (they’re in my Resource Library, you can sign up to enter it for free at the bottom of this post!), and you can also reference my post about naturally treating ADHD as far as supplements to take. But beginning with just elimination of gluten should be your first step.
The only way you can be 100% sure something is entirely without gluten is to look for the Gluten Free Symbol of approval. This means it’s not processed in a facility that could expose it to gluten, and it doesn’t contain any additives or preservatives that use gluten.
Foods that I am confident are free of gluten are going to be fruits and vegetables, most meats (not deli meats or processed meats, you’ll need to check the labels), potatoes of any sort, brown and white rice, and quinoa.
The good thing about eating this way? Keeping Dairy and Soy out becomes relatively easy as well.
Produce, most meats, potatoes, rice, and quinoa in a raw form generally also do not include dairy or soy either.
If you are purchasing quinoa or rice that is prepacked and pre-seasoned, you’ll want to check the label for dairy, soy or gluten as preservatives or seasonings.
When to Eat What?
Breakfast is the best time to have carbs. Slow carbs (otherwise known as complex carbs) are the best for an ADHD diet. They will give you energy longer and stronger than fast carbs. Fast carbs still have a place in an ADHD diet, but we’ll get to that later.
Gluten-free oats with gluten free sausage is an excellent beginning to your day. Add an apple as well. If you are really looking to give your brain a boost try switching the carbs for a fat, like an avocado. Gluten free toast, with avocado mash and gluten-free sausage or bacon, is probably my favorite breakfast.
Keep in mind, this is not a calorie conscious diet.
You can have as much as you want, just don’t eat the foods that hurt your brain. You may find you lose some weight. If you are seeking to lose weight from this diet, I suggest e-mailing me for best possible practices for that.
For lunch, a salad with healthy fat (think olive oil and vinegar for the dressing) and a good portion of protein are good. If you are snacky later, eating fruit can help you maintain your sugar levels. I also have a post linking to 50 different gluten, dairy and soy free recipes. It will be helpful in planning your snacks.
For dinner, I try to do lean meat with a vegetable (asparagus is my favorite!).
What do we drink?
Water. You drink water.
Milk can wait until your gut resets and you can test it. In the meantime, I do list a few soft kinds of cheese that aren’t too terrible for you on the ADHD diet cheat sheets. Dairy is not always bad. But it is not always tolerated by our gut. The only way to know if dairy is hurting you is to take it out of your system for a while.
Can we have coffee? Tea?
Yes, you can. If you drink coffee and really LOVE creamer, I suggest purchasing gluten, dairy and soy free vegan creamer like Califia farms. [Affiliate Link] They have good flavors. They may take a little to get used to, but eventually, the taste will grow on you if you are keeping dairy and processed sugars at bay.
Bulletproof coffee is another excellent way to get a brain boost, and I suggest using my favorite brand, Garden of Life’s MCT Oil, [Affiliate link] to make it.
Do we get cheat days?
If you are serious about trying an ADHD diet, then you need to go at least 21-30 days without a “cheat” day. Trust me. Your body and gut need to be able to reset completely. They can’t do that if you are cheating here and there with cake, cupcakes, pop, etc.
After 30 Days of restriction, you can slowly reintroduce the foods you cut out. In small amounts. You then need to wait at least 7 days of only trying that specific food to see if you have a reaction to it. This can manifest immediately, or in my case dairy gives me a headache the following day. Gluten, makes me feel like I have a hangover for 3 days. You will know then if your gut can handle it. If it cannot, I’d suggest maintaining abstaining from that food for a while longer.
What about those fast carbs you were talking about?
Glucose, in small doses, has been shown to aid ADHD people in helping them concentrate. The effects of this, I believe, are drastically improved if your body is not used to burning sugar for energy all the time. This way, when small amounts of healthy sugars are introduced, a spike in blood sugar doesn’t derail everything else. If you have a test to take, eating a banana right before, or small amounts of 70% cacao chocolate could help improve your focus but only for a short period. Follow this up with a high protein meal within 60-90 minutes to be sure this doesn’t drop your blood sugar, which will decrease your focus.
What supplements should we be taking?
Completely up to you.
The only supplement I will say you should highly consider taking would be a probiotic. I only recommend the best brand for probiotics, and that is Garden of Life probiotics. [Affiliate Link] If you are like me and also have anxiety, they have one geared explicitly toward Mood help that also contains ashwagandha root. I’ve seen a significant improvement in my anxiety regulation by taking this probiotic on an empty stomach every morning before I eat breakfast.
How will we know if an ADHD diet is working?
First, you will feel like you have the flu. I wish this part of it weren’t so hard, but it is. When you detox your body of all the lousy junk, your gut freaks out for a bit. Yeast and other bacteria that has overgrown in your gut from poor dieting and sugar intake releases chemicals as it dies, and the side effects of this are not pleasant. In the first few days of beginning the diet, you will be irritable, bloated slightly, you may feel like you have a head cold. I also had migraines. But I stuck it out.
How did I find the will to stay committed?
Here’s the cold hard truth on why I stuck it out:
I was tired of being exhausted all the time.
I was tired of not wanting to play with my kids.
I was sick of being sick and feeling like I never had the energy to finish anything.
I couldn’t concentrate, and I walked around in a fog all day. I knew on the other side of this “detox flu” would be a much better, healthier, version of me. One with more energy, less confusion, and less depression.
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Turns out, I was right!
After about 7-10 days of detox, you will begin to feel better. The sugar irritability I remember taking the longest. It took me a full 14 days to start being more pleasant (think PMS moodiness on overdrive, yeah that bad). I believe if you are taking the mood probiotic, you could drastically shorten this (I didn’t have that when I started my detox three years ago).
After that, you will likely wake up feeling like a million dollars.
You’ll be in a good mood, you’ll be less hungry. You’ll feel like you could run a marathon (although, I don’t recommend doing that without training.) You will feel so much better, and that is truly when the fun begins.
Why should you try an ADHD diet?
An ADHD Diet might work for you if you don’t like the idea of taking medication. If your medication dosages keep increasing and you no longer want to have to do that.
If you can’t get on medication for your ADHD but want to see an improvement in symptoms.
If you genuinely just want to feel better and aren’t sure you have ADHD but think you might.
All these reasons are a good reason to begin the diet.
Research is showing more and more the link between our gut health and our brain health. Don’t believe me? Go listen to Dr. Axe, Dr. Oz or any of the other myriad of doctors, scientists, psychiatrists and psychologists with degrees who understand the human body on a professional level and most of them will tell you there is a definite link.
So ask yourself this:
Is your brain worth it?
Is your child?
This isn’t a bandaid for your ADHD. It’s a whole health approach to a lifestyle change that can if nothing else, drastically improve your overall wellbeing.
Why wouldn’t you want that?
Download my Free ADHD diet cheat sheets to get started, and give your brain the nutrients it needs.
If I did it, so can you!