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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is not caused by diet alone.

However, research shows that reactions to food may worsen many people’s ADHD symptoms.

Cerrtain dietary changes may help you manage ADHD symptoms.
Cerrtain dietary changes may help you manage ADHD symptoms.

For this reason, certain dietary changes may help you manage symptoms.

In fact, one diet has been shown to improve symptoms in up to 50–82 percent of children with ADHD.

This article explains what this diet is and how to follow it.

What is ADHD and Does Diet Play a Role?

ADHD is characterized by inattention, impulsiveness and hyperactivity.

Many factors may affect its development. While the exact cause is unclear, research shows a large genetic component (1, 2).

ADHD can greatly affect people’s lives, especially in terms of academic and career outcomes (3, 4, 5, 6, 7).

As there is no cure for ADHD, most treatments aim to manage symptoms. The most popular treatments involve behavioral therapy and medication, but research has also been done on dietary interventions (8, 9).

Two main types of studies have looked into the effects of diet on ADHD symptoms:

  • Supplement studies: These studies look into the effects of dietary supplements like omega-3 fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins or minerals.
  • Elimination studies: These studies look into the effects of eliminating certain foods, additives or ingredients from the diet.

For a detailed review of these studies, check out this article: Does Nutrition Play a Role in ADHD?

However, it should be noted that dietary modification as a treatment for ADHD is still viewed as controversial.

Nonetheless, consistent evidence from strong studies shows that elimination diets can greatly decrease ADHD symptoms for some children (8, 10, 11, 12, 13).

Bottom Line: ADHD is a common behavioral disorder. While therapy and medication remain the most common treatments, research shows that an elimination diet can help some people manage symptoms.

The Few Foods Elimination Diet for ADHD

The main elimination diet used in ADHD research is the Few Foods Diet.

It follows the same principles as other elimination diets, but is generally less restrictive.

Here’s how the Few Foods Diet works:

  • Elimination: For 1-5 weeks, follow a diet consisting only of foods that are not likely to trigger adverse reactions. If symptoms improve, enter the second phase.
  • Reintroduction: Every 3-7 days, reintroduce foods that may cause symptoms. If adverse effects occur, the food is considered to be “sensitizing.”
  • Treatment: Develop a personal diet plan that avoids sensitizing foods as much as possible, to help minimize your child’s symptoms.

Bottom Line: The Few Foods Diet is a three-phase approach to identifying and eliminating foods that may worsen ADHD symptoms.

Health Benefits of the Few Foods Diet

Twelve studies have examined the effects of the Few Foods Diet on symptoms of ADHD.

Five of these were uncontrolled trials, while seven were randomized, controlled trials.

Eleven studies found a decrease in symptoms for 50–82 percent of children, while one study reported improvements for 24 percent of children (14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22,23, 24, 25).

Additionally, some of the children showed more than a 50 percent improvement in behavior after the elimination phase of the diet (19, 21, 22, 24).

Many of the children also reported fewer headaches, stomach aches, fits, muscle pains and nasal symptoms. Parents reported fewer problems with sleeping and fewer nighttime awakenings in their children (16, 17, 18, 19).

In one of the studies, these effects were even noticeable on a brain scan when the children ate a sensitizing food (21).

A 2012 review, using eight of these studies, reported an overall effect size very similar to the average effect size of common ADHD medications like Ritalin or Concerta (1, 26, 27).

Several experts agree that the evidence supporting the Few Food Diet is convincing and it is effective for many children with ADHD (8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 28).

Bottom Line: The Few Foods Diet has been shown to decrease ADHD symptoms for some children—often more than half. Less headaches, fits and sleeping problems have also been reported.

What to Eat on the Few Foods Diet

For 1–4 weeks, only eat the foods listed below. If you don’t notice improvements to symptoms after 1–2 weeks, you may want to discontinue the diet.

However, the length of this period differs.

Some people see symptoms improve greatly in the first three days, while others don’t experience improvements until the second week.

The Few Foods Diet typically consists of 2–5 protein sources, 2–3 carb sources, 1–2 fat sources, 2 types of fruit, a range of vegetables and drinks.

Which Foods Should You Eat?

  • Protein: Beef, lamb, wild game, chicken and turkey.
  • Fat: Sunflower and rapeseed oil.
  • Green vegetables: Brussels sprouts, spinach, artichokes, cabbage, bamboo shoots, broccoli, bok choy, asparagus and cucumbers.
  • Other vegetables: Mushrooms, cauliflower, onions, leeks, garlic, radishes, squash, pumpkin, zucchini, beets and root vegetables.
  • Spices: Rice vinegar, balsamic vinegar, iodized salt, turmeric, curry powder, basil, dill, oregano, parsley, rosemary, thyme, tarragon and coriander.
  • Drinks: Enriched rice milk, carbonated water, tea (except for vanilla, peppermint, cinnamon, fruit or licorice tea), pear juice, homemade juices and smoothies.
  • Other foods: Tapioca, rice bran, rice flour, potato flour, baking soda, xanthan gum, baking powder, arrowroot and ginger.

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