Elimination Diets for ADHD: Do They Work?

An elimination diet involves removing certain foods from your diet to find out whether those foods may be making you sick. Some people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), parents of children with ADHD, and even some health professionals claim that an elimination diet could help manage symptoms of ADHD.

The most common elimination diet touted to help people with ADHD is the Feingold Diet, according to Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). Developed and introduced by Benjamin Feingold, MD, in the 1970s, it encourages people with ADHD to avoid food additives like artificial flavors, colorings, sweeteners, and preservatives, along with foods that contain the ingredient salicylate, CHADD reports. Salicylates are natural chemicals found in some medications, such as aspirin, and some fruits, vegetables, and spices.

Other elimination diets commonly encourage people to avoid foods containing dairy or gluten.

While dietary approaches like these may sound promising, treating ADHD is complex — it’s not as straightforward as simply trying a new diet. And, according to CHADD, elimination-based dietary approaches for ADHD don’t hold up scientifically.

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Elimination Diets for ADHD: What the Science Shows

Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at LifeStance Health in San Francisco, says that lifestyle changes like maintaining a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and adhering to a structured daily routine may all be good ways to supplement an overall treatment plan for ADHD. But, she says, these strategies are by no means a replacement for ADHD medication or therapy.

“Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that eliminating certain foods is an effective treatment for ADHD,” says Dr. Patel-Dunn.

In a review published in November 2017 in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, researchers found that there’s no sufficient evidence to show that any food or nutrient-based strategies could help treat ADHD.

Another review, published in 2019 in Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, which focused specifically on elimination diets, showed that they offer no clear benefits for managing ADHD.

At the same time, while there is no conclusive evidence that elimination diets help treat ADHD symptoms, it is clear that what you eat can affect ADHD symptoms for better or worse, says Shanna Pearson, who has ADHD, and is the founder and president of Expert ADHD Coaching, a coaching and training company geared toward adults and college students with ADHD.

For example, following an elimination diet — or any other diet that causes cycles of high energy followed by heavy crashes — will directly impact the mood and actions of someone with ADHD, Pearson says.

“If you're on an elimination diet and this causes you to be hungry, tired, cranky, low energy, then you're only going to exacerbate your ADHD symptoms, which is exactly the opposite of what you want,” she explains.

In contrast, following a diet that helps keep your energy level stable may make it easier to focus, follow through on things you start, and complete challenging tasks, Pearson says.

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Why an Elimination Diet May Not Work for You

Tempted to consider an elimination diet for ADHD that you read about online or that someone you know said worked for them? Be wary, says Patel-Dunn. There’s no known cure for ADHD, she notes, and diets promoted on social media or trending on the internet aren’t necessarily safe. What’s more, Patel-Dunn emphasizes, they cannot be substituted for medication or therapy.

Another downside to consider is that going all in for a diet that doesn’t have the desired effect can have a rebound effect, says Pearson.

“Usually trying a bunch of things that don't work just creates even more frustration and sadness, and makes people feel like they failed yet again at just one more thing,” says Pearson.

A better approach is to adopt healthier eating habits that are realistic and doable over the long term, she says.

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What to Know Before Trying an Elimination Diet

Because elimination diets are not evidence-based treatments for ADHD, Patel-Dunn advises her patients with ADHD to avoid them.

But if you still feel you want to give one a shot, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian first, especially if you have other health conditions in addition to ADHD, Pearson advises. You want to ensure you’re getting enough nutrients, vitamins, and calories from the foods you are eating. It’s also important to eliminate only one thing at a time.

“According to our clients who try to eliminate too much too fast, they might feel great for two to five days, but it isn't sustainable long term,” she explains. “You also won't be clear on which food is causing which results.”

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