One of the most important things you can do for your brain, and your life, is to make informed choices about what you eat. The food and drink you put in your mouth can make it easier to think and remember or make it nearly impossible.
ADHD doesn’t come in “one size fits all” so you need to carefully monitor your reactions to food. Some foods give you more energy, mental clarity, and peace of mind and some make you foggy-headed, forgetful, and miserable.
Proteins and carbohydrates are two important nutrients that strongly effect your capacity to learn and remember. Eating the right kinds of protein and carbs at the best time of day will make a big difference!
Protein and the ADHD Brain
Eating the right kind and amount of protein on the correct timetable helps you –
think more clearly
have more energy
focus for longer periods, and
follow-through more effectively and consistently
Why is this? One of the brain chemicals responsible for attention, concentration and controlling movements of the body is the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Having more dopamine available in the brain reduces the symptoms of ADHD. What does this have to do with protein?! Dopamine is manufactured from protein!
What Foods Have Protein?
Fortunately, there are many plant and animal sources of protein. You’ll get better results for your brain if you eat a wide variety of protein foods every day. You’ll have more energy, think more clearly, and be able to concentrate for longer!
Animal food sources of protein include eggs, cheese, meat, fish, poultry and whey (milk protein that is low in lactose content)
Plant food sources of protein fall into several major categories: nuts, seeds, legumes, green vegetables, and grains (more about grains later in this article!)
Vegetables – only some veggies have significant protein, and they include seaweed, mustard greens, and spinach
Seeds – all seeds contain protein – examples include sesame, sunflower, chia, pumpkin and watermelon
Legumes – all legumes contain protein – examples include soybeans and soy products, kidney, pinto, and garbanzo
Nuts – all nuts contain protein – good choices include almonds, walnuts, and pecans, preferably not salted or roasted
Grains – all grains contain protein – good choices include whole grains such as brown rice, oats, barley, and whole wheat berries, and in moderation: egg fettucine, spaghetti, and wheat tortillas
When Are the Best Times to Eat Protein?
Breakfast: Most people with ADHD get better results when they eat a high protein breakfast
Mini-servings frequently throughout the day: Your energy and mental clarity will be better if you eat mini-servings of protein frequently throughout the day. Try protein snacks between meals for a mental pick me up! By the way, even a tablespoon of a protein food eaten every hour will increase your mental focus.
Before bed: A little bit of protein 1-2 hours before bed will generally help you sleep! Experiment to find which types of protein work best for you.
Carbohydrates and the ADHD Brain
“If we were evil scientists and we said, ‘Let’s make the most perfect poison,’ it would be wheat.”
– William Davis, MD, preventive cardiologist
Eating carbs is necessary because they provide an important source of energy and nutrients for the body. Carbs raise blood sugar levels more than other kind of food. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the kind and amount of carbs you eat and when you eat them.
There are three types of carbs – sugars (simple carbs), starches (complex carbs) and fiber (non-digestible substance in plant foods that gives the food its structure). Foods containing starches and sugars are often “refined” by processing them so that their fiber matrix is destroyed. The refining process turns grains into flour and plants such as sugar cane into white sugar. Fruits are refined when they are turned into juice.
The sugars in refined carbohydrates raise your blood sugar levels soon after you eat them. This is a problem because it causes your blood sugar to rise quickly and then to fall quickly. When your blood sugar levels fall, you crash – less energy, poor concentration, grumpy mood.
On top of that, removing the fiber matrix from carbs is the equivalent of turning the food into a substance that your body processes like it processes drugs such as cocaine and heroin!
Whenever we eat, some dopamine is released in the brain. Dopamine feels good. If we eat the same food again and again, less dopamine is released and our enjoyment of the food decreases. This is a natural, evolutionary process that encourages us to eat a wide variety of foods and stay healthier.
But this isn’t what happens when we eat sugar and flour! The dopamine release in the brain doesn’t go down over time for these foods. This creates a craving for these foods. The addiction we develop to flour and sugar isn’t as extreme as the addiction to substances such as alcohol and illicit drugs, but it’s an addiction all the same! And it can lead to binging and even withdrawal symptoms!
When Are the Best Times to Eat Carbs?
So if you want to think clearly, remember what you study, stay focused, and be stay in a positive mood – it’s a good idea to limit or eliminate the refined carbs in your diet, especially before lunch.
It’s better to wait until lunch to consume high-carbohydrate foods, such as grains, and then, it’s best to have complex, non-refined carbs such as whole grains, nuts, and legumes. Even eating non-refined carb foods for breakfast can make it hard to concentrate for the rest of the day.
BUT there’s an exception to this rule – a small percentage of people with ADHD think more clearly when they eat complex carbs in the morning.
So try limiting your consumption of carbs in the morning and see how you do! If you feel foggy-headed, or have any kind of emotional reaction such as moodiness, sadness or lethargy, you may not be getting enough carbs in the morning. You can try adding a serving of complex carbs such as legumes, nuts or seeds to your protein breakfast.
For snacks and dinner: Eat complex carbohydrates, lots and lots of veggies, and frequent servings of protein. This diet will help you focus, get stuff done, and feel happier.
Taking the next step
Humans don’t like feeling that they are giving up things they enjoy or making sacrifices, even when they know there are benefits to their actions. So … you will be much more likely to make real changes if you adopt a mindset that is about increasing rather than decreasing.
Here’s my trick: when I want to make dietary changes, I don’t say to myself, “I have to eat less of that (undesirable food X).” Instead, I tell myself, “I am going to eat more of that (healthy food Y).”
Give yourself permission to consume MORE of just one, healthy food.
The benefits of this approach are:
you won’t feel deprived, and therefore won’t feel resentful
you’ll increase consumption of a healthy food and get the positive benefits of improved nutrition
you’ll fill up faster and have less room for the “bad” foods you are trying to limit
You can begin easily by adding more protein to your breakfast. For example, if you typically eat an egg and toast and jam, try skipping the toast and jam and replacing it with a second egg or some nuts and spinach. You can add cheese to the egg if your body handles dairy products. Or you can have lean poultry or fish with the egg.
Make just one change at a time! One foot in front of the other, so to speak. Big changes are nothing more than lots of little actions added up on top of each other!
The Bottom Line in Using Diet as a Non-medical Treatment for ADHD
Eat high quality protein often – at each meal and for snacks
Eat reasonable servings of complex carbs for lunch and dinner
Eat lots and lots of veggies all day long!
Eat carbs for breakfast (unless they give you more energy)
Dr. Kari Miller, PhD, BCET is a board certified educational therapist and ADHD coach who has been educating and coaching adults and young people who have ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, emotional challenges, and other complex needs for more than twenty-five years. She holds a PhD in educational psychology and mathematical statistics, an MEd in Learning Disabilities, Gifted Education and Educational Diagnosis, and a BS in Early Childhood Education and Behavior Disorders. Dr. Miller provides support across the lifespan – to school-aged students with learning and attention challenges, to young adults in transition to college or the workplace, and to women with ADHD who have passionate dreams, but are frustrated by procrastination, lack of focus and difficulty following through.