Experts generally agree that a poor diet cannot cause ADHD and a good one cannot cure it. But does diet have an effect on ADHD? Chances are that certain foods, drinks and substances will have some effect. Some are negative, some are positive, and some are a little bit of both.
Sugar in all of its various forms, from high fructose corn syrup to the white stuff in the bowl, can be bad for you, mainly in terms of weight gain. So you may just tune out in general when you hear cautions about it. However, if you have ADHD, one effect of too much sugar may be something you want to avoid.
Putting a large amount of sugar in your body is essentially putting yourself on a nutritional rollercoaster. First you go up with a burst of energy, and then you come plunging down with the sugar crash. Neither the up nor down is good for people with ADHD. Let’s face it, even-keel is not a state that we enjoy to excess. The last thing that we want to do is artificially create highs and lows. Plus, sugar crashes can cause irritability, a low mood and fatigue. Why go there?
Carbohydrates, for the purposes of this discussion, can be divided into two categories: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are found in foods like fruit, soft drinks, candy and breads and cereals made from refined sugar. The problem with simple carbs is that they are essentially the same thing as sugar, since the body breaks them down into glucose so quickly. Simple carbs should comprise a small percent of your daily intake, and should come from natural sources instead of processed foods.
Complex carbohydrates are an improvement over simple carbs, and are found in wholegrain cereal or bread, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. They convert to glucose more slowly, so they do not have the same rollercoaster effect as sugar or simple carbodydrates. You should devote about half of your daily calories to complex carbohydrates.
Good (probably) in moderation
It is present in so much of what we consume, with coffee, tea, soft drinks and chocolate being some of the best known examples. People with ADHD tend to respond to caffeine differently than people without ADHD. While people without ADHD turn to caffeine for a burst of energy, those of us with ADHD usually find that caffeine, like other forms of speed, helps to calm and focus us. So ingesting caffeine can be an alternative to stimulant medication.
However, you need to remember that caffeine is a drug, and you need to monitor its affect on your body and behavior. Our individual tolerance for caffeine varies. If we stop taking our Ritalin, Strattera or other medications, we can suffer unpleasant side effects. If we stop drinking our four daily cups of coffee every day, then we might suffer from headaches until our body adapts.
Keep in mind, though, if you are taking a stimulant medication for your ADHD, you might want to reconsider adding another stimulant like caffeine at all, especially if you start experiencing side effects like a racing heart.
If this all seems confusing, you could simplify, simplify, simplify, by just keeping “everything in moderation” in mind, and eating a balanced diet. I’m not sure moderation is something that most of us with ADHD excel at, but striving for it is definitely an improvement over the status quo if you know that your diet is not the best. Improve your diet by cutting down on sugar and processed simple carbs, and boosting the amount of protein and complex carbohydrates you eat.