Can a low-carb diet reduce symptoms of ADHD in children and adults?

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Approximately 10% of the population, including children and adults, suffer from ADHD. As parents, we would do anything to protect our children, whether it means changing up lifestyles, routines, and diets.

Some early research suggests that there is a strong correlation between different dieting strategies and meal plans reducing the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Today, we will take a look at low-carb diets and their evidence in reducing symptoms of neurological conditions like ADHD.

What is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a medical condition that affects concentration and self-control. People with ADHD may suffer from symptoms like hyperactivity and impulsivity.

When these symptoms are more serious and frequent than normal for the child’s age and development stage, a diagnosis is made. Boys are 6 to 9 times more likely than girls to suffer from ADHD [1].

There are various types of food that have a different effect on the body, this is especially the case with sugar.

Sugar is well known for being easily absorbed, increasing blood sugar levels and providing quick energy for the body.

The link between dietary exposures and ADHD has been studied, and higher sugar intake has been linked to negative effects in some experiments.

The evidence behind sugars and ADHD

Firstly, it’s important to note that there’s a possibility that children and adults who suffer from ADHD respond differently to sugars.

A 2020 study examined the effects of a balanced diet on people with and without ADHD. It was reported that people with ADHD excreted significantly more sugars than those who didn’t suffer from ADHD. This suggests that people with ADHD metabolise sugar differently.

Another 2020 study analysed a number of studies and reported a significant relationship between overall sugar consumption and the effects on ADHD symptoms. It was found that reduced sugar intake can significantly reduce the symptoms of ADHD.

Furthermore, in a 2019 study, it was found that diets high in sugar and saturated fats increased the risk of ADHD, but certain fruit can protect against it.

On the other hand, a 2019 study evaluated the association between change in sugar consumption in children between the ages of 6 and 11 and the incidence of ADHD symptoms. This study found no correlation between sugar consumption and reduction in ADHD symptoms.

Summary of evidence

So, as you can see the evidence is not conclusive.

However, from a physiological point of view, sugar should influence hyperactivity in children because it can quickly enter the bloodstream, making rapid changes in glucose levels and starting adrenaline production.

(Pubmed, 2019)

Furthermore, organisations such as the American Health Association (AHA), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the World Health Organization (WHO) have expressed their opinions as a result of early studies showing a connection between sugars and ADHD.

They now suggest that adults and children should consume less than 10% of their overall energy intake from free sugars, noting that a further reduction of 5% would have additional health benefits.

Other problems associated with high sugar intake [2]

  • Increased risk of caries [3]
  • Obesity can also lead to sleep-disordered breathing [4]
  • Cardiovascular disease [5]
  • Type-2 diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Fatty liver disease

Best foods for managing ADHD

1. Protein

Protein-rich foods like meat, fish, eggs and lentils can reduce the spike in blood sugar levels as they are slow to digest. This may reduce the hyperactivity of a child or an adult.

2. Complex carbohydrates

Although carbohydrates are being called the main foe here, it’s important to know that complex carbohydrates contain a lot of fibre. Fibre is incredible for slowing down digestion and minimising the spike in blood sugar levels.

This means that a person may obtain gradual energy for long term rather than short term.

3. Fats

Fats, just like protein, are slow to digest and they provide a lot of slow-releasing energy. Therefore, if a person eats something sugary, they can counteract the spike in sugar levels by having something high in healthy fats.

Healthy fats include avocados, walnuts, cashews, salmon, flaxseeds, and chia seeds. The focus is to increase the intake of omega-3s as these have shown to improve attention, motivation, and more [6].

Other foods

Some research also suggests that ADHD can develop as a result of certain nutritional deficiencies. This means that the risk of ADHD may be lower if a person consumes a diet filled with the following nutrients:

  • iron: red meats, edamame beans, red kidney beans, dried apricots
  • vitamin D: salmon, sardines, liver and egg yolks
  • zinc: red meat and poultry
  • vitamin B-6: chicken, turkey, oats, bananas
  • magnesium: almonds, spinach, cashews, peanuts

Foods to avoid

Soft drinks

Some research suggests that approximately 30% of children’s sugar intake comes from soft drinks.

Soft drinks contain sodium benzoate (SB), and this chemical is greatly associated with deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It was found that this chemical can impair memory and motor coordination [7].

Simple carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates refer to sugary foods like sweets, cookies, and candy. But the list also extends to white rice, white pasta, and white bread.

Try to choose carbohydrates that are wholegrain, brown, whole wheat or seeded.

Caffeine

We’ve touched on caffeine a little earlier, and the truth is that caffeine stimulates energy, fidgetiness, and anxiety. This can really trigger the symptoms of ADHD.

Therefore, try to reduce any intake of caffeinated drinks, fizzy drinks and sports drinks.

Is there a best diet for ADHD?

There is no cure for ADHD, but some studies show a reduction in symptoms by eating certain foods and limiting others.

The focus on limiting the symptoms of ADHD is by increasing the intake of fibre and healthy fats and reducing the intake of refined sugars. Diets that have been regularly promoted for health are the Mediterranean diet or a balanced diet.

Summary

In summary, some research suggests that low carb diets can significantly reduce the symptoms of ADHD but there are some controversial studies too.

Therefore, the information on whether low-carb diets can or cannot help in managing ADHD is inconclusive. More research is needed.

At this moment, the best way to manage the symptoms is by increasing the intake of complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein whilst reducing the intake of refined sugars.

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