Nutrition and ADHD : Diet and Executive Function

Blog, Written by Sophie Corbett

So you’re looking for ways to help support your ADHD or your child’s through diet and nutrition. Excellent idea.

As a dietitian who specialises in mental health, I know how much what we eat can impact our wellbeing. Making some simple changes to your diet and lifestyle could help improve executive function and make managing ADHD easier. In this series, I’ll explore how nutrition and ADHD are connected, how medication impacts nutrition, debunk some common dietary myths about ADHD, and provide practical tips for optimising your diet.

Stay tuned – the research in this topic is growing quickly, here at Mental Health Dietitians we will keep you updated. Did you know we have a weekly newsletter? No spam, just a short educational read straight to your inbox.

The Impact of ADHD on Executive Function and Eating Behaviors

 

If you have ADHD, your executive function is likely to be impacted in ways that influence how you eat. Executive function refers to skills like planning, organising, and managing time – all things needed to have a healthy diet and relationship with food. We all have an individual executive function fingerprint, it’s so important to understand which areas are your strong points and which areas are you weaker points. I recommending completing this executive function questionnaire to find this out.

Difficulty recognising hunger and fullness

 

People with ADHD often struggle to identify feelings of hunger and fullness. You may frequently forget to eat, not notice you’re hungry until you’re ravenous, or have trouble stopping when full. This is known as ‘lack of interoception’.

This can lead to issues like emotional eating or undereating. Some people with ADHD also have difficulty recognising thirst.

Emotional eating vs undereating

 

Some individuals with ADHD eat to soothe unpleasant emotions like stress, boredom or frustration. Others may become so focused or distracted that they forget to eat. Both patterns can lead to disordered eating or malnutrition.

Link between ADHD and eating disorders

 

There appears to be a connection between ADHD and eating disorders like binge eating disorder, anorexia or bulimia. Impulsiveness, difficulty regulating emotions, and trouble with planning and organisation are factors in both ADHD and eating disorders. If you think that you struggle with your relationship with food, I encourage you to reach out to your GP or seek help from a dietitian.

 

Impact of medication

 

ADHD medication can reduce your appetite, while it makes it harder to eat, it doesn’t mean you need to eat less, or that eating is less important. If you medication is having an impact on your weight, please discuss this with your doctor. There are other things you can try such as timing your meals around your medication and choosing nutrient-dense snacks when possible. Some find protein-rich, high-energy foods especially helpful. Staying hydrated and maintaining a routine meal schedule will also support your health and medication effectiveness.

The interplay between ADHD, executive function and eating is complex. Being aware of how these factors influence you personally is the first step to developing a healthier relationship with food. With support, you can find what works for your unique needs and situation.

 

Common Nutritional Deficiencies in ADHD

 

Human brain model and variety of healthy fresh food

Several nutritional deficiencies are common in people with ADHD and can worsen symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity.

In particular:

Low Omega-3 Levels

 

Essential fatty acids like omega-3s are critical for brain health and development. Studies show people with ADHD often have lower levels of omega-3s, which can negatively impact focus and mood. Eating more fatty fish, chia seeds, and flaxseeds can help boost your omega-3 intake. If you don’t eat fish, it may be advisable to take a good quality Omega-3 supplement.

 

Vitamin D Deficiency

 

Vitamin D plays an important role in the production of dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters important for attention and motivation. Unfortunately, Vitamin D deficiency is widespread and especially common in those with ADHD. Ensuring that you take a vitamin D supplement during the winter months can help, some people may need to take a supplement year round as some people are more prone to low vitamin D levels.

 

Other Key Nutrients

 

Several B vitamins, zinc, and iron are also important for proper brain function and development. Deficiencies in these nutrients may exacerbate symptoms of inattention or hyperactivity. Eating a balanced diet can help ensure you get adequate amounts of these key nutrients. If you struggle to eat a balanced diet, I recommend speaking to a dietitian and considering taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement to prevent deficiencies.

 

Do Restrictive Diets Help ADHD Symptoms?

In short, no.

There is no strong evidence that restrictive diets effectively reduce ADHD symptoms or improve executive function. While some parents report minor improvements in behaviour or focus, many find no benefit or that the diet is too difficult to follow. The few studies on restrictive diets have been small and poorly designed. They have failed to show any meaningful or long-lasting impact on core ADHD symptoms like inattention, hyperactivity, or impulsivity.

More importantly, restrictive diets can be unhealthy, especially for developing children and teens. They may lack important nutrients like iron, calcium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids that are important for brain health and development. Dietary restrictions also increase the risk of developing eating disorders by promoting an unhealthy relationship with food.

Rather than recommending a restrictive diet, most experts suggest following a balanced nutritious diet, and making sure any nutritional deficiencies are addressed. For some, supplements may also provide benefit. A balanced diet is very important, but on it’s own is not enough to manage ADHD. Medication and behavioural interventions remain the most effective treatments for ADHD symptoms.

Dietary and lifestyle Considerations for Managing ADHD

 

When it comes to managing ADHD through diet, there are a few key things to keep in mind.

Stick to a routine

 

Eating regularly and consistently is important for focus and concentration. Set timers to remind yourself to eat and keep snacks in visible places. Developing a routine around mealtimes can help. Ask friends or family members to support you in sticking to your routine. You may also wish to ultilise relevant technology to help.

Eat a balanced diet

 

Aim for a balanced diet with proteins, fruits and vegetables, a range of carbohydrates whole grains, plenty of healthy fat and of course including your favourite foods. A balanced diet will provide the nutrients you need to support brain health and executive function. Avoiding restriction and eating regularly also helps to prevent binges and supports a healthy relationship with food.

Consider supplements

 

Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D may be especially important for those with ADHD. Omega-3s promote brain health and may improve focus and mood. Vitamin D deficiency is common and can worsen ADHD symptoms. Consider taking supplements, especially if you don’t consume fish and during the winter months.

Limit distractions

 

Consider minimising distractions during mealtimes, like TV, phones, and computers. Eating mindfully will make you more aware of your hunger/fullness cues and the experience of eating. It may also help you feel more satisfied with less food.
Making healthy changes to your diet and meal habits can have significant benefits for managing ADHD. But start small – pick one or two strategies to focus on and build from there. Every little bit helps, so do what you can and try not to feel overwhelmed. With time and practice, maintaining a balanced diet and eating routine can become second nature.

Stay hydrated

 

Keep drinks close by so that you minimise barriers to hydration. Tea, hot chocolate, squash and smoothies all count towards your fluid requirement, so you don’t have to drink water if you prefer other flavours. Some people find having a water bottle that has measurements on it can be helpful so you can keep track of how much you have had to drink during a day.

Joyful movement

 

Studies have shown that including some movement a day can really help with ADHD symptoms. It does not have to be long or tiring, something as simple as a walk around the block, dancing at home or doing yoga all count. It’s best to stick to forms of movement that you enjoy, as this will be the easiest to stick to.

Sleep hygiene

 

Insomnia is more common among people with ADHD, and sleep deprivation can further impact executive function and our ability to recognise hunger and thirst signals. If you struggle with sleep start by following the sleep hugiene guidance from The Sleep Foundation. If you are already following the sleep hygiene guidance and are still struggling then it’s important to seek help from a Doctor. Certain medications such as Melatonin can be helpful for people with ADHD.

 

The Future for Nutrition and ADHD

 

The future of nutrition science for ADHD is promising. As research continues, we’re learning more about the links between the gut and brain, and how certain nutrients and probiotics may support executive function and focus.

Several studies show that certain strains of probiotics, like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, may help improve ADHD symptoms. Probiotics can be used to support a healthy gut microbiome, which is essential for brain health and development, due to the gut-brain connection. It’s possible that some probiotic strains may help reduce inflammation in the gut and promote the synthesis of neurotransmitters that regulate mood and cognition. This science is exciting but still in its infancy, so it is too early to know which strains are likely to have benefit.

The role of diet and nutrition in ADHD management is an emerging area of research. As we better understand how certain nutrients, probiotics and dietary factors interact with brain and gut health, targeted supplements and interventions may become part of an integrated treatment approach for ADHD. For now, the best plan is to follow a balanced nutritious diet, stay hydrated, get enough sleep, include some enjoyable exercise, and manage stress—all of which can help support focus and mental wellbeing for people with ADHD.

Conclusion

 

So there you have it, some key ways nutrition can impact ADHD and executive function. While medication and behavioural interventions are commonly used to manage symptoms, diet absolutely plays a role and should not be overlooked.
The research on nutrition and ADHD is constantly evolving, but anecdotally many people I work with find noticeable improvements from dietary changes.

If you’re living with ADHD, consider experimenting with the suggestions discussed here. Start with one change at a time, give it a fair trial, and see how you feel. You may be pleasantly surprised at the impact small tweaks can make on your focus, mood and productivity. The future is bright in this area of research, but for now use the information available and be your own best advocate in managing your ADHD. You’ve got this!

 

We are here to help

 

If you feel that this topic personally resonates with you, and you need some support in this area then we are here to help. We are a team of specialist dietitians in mental health and eating disorders. We would love to support you to be your best and healthiest version, and to meet your personal goals. Send us a message here. Or find out more about us here. 

 

Blog written by Sophie

Dietitian Sophie

 

Sophie is a Specialist Eating Disorder Dietitian passionate about delivering great quality care and advocating for her clients. She is naturally curious and driven for continued learning both within the profession and outside of it. Sophie founded Mental Health Dietitians in 2024 to be able to work in a way that is value-aligned and makes a difference to the individuals in her care, as well as the wider profession. She currently supports international clients 1-1 in her online clinic. 

 

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