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Nutrition Matters for People with ADHD and Learning Concerns


Nutrition isn’t usually on our minds in the morning.  For example, James ran out of the house in a hurry.  He was late for work, but could slug down a cup of coffee, eating a piece of toast in the car on the drive into work.  Although it wasn’t directly apparent to him at the time, he found himself groggy and sluggish all day, resulting in the need to finish work at home that day in the evening.

Many of us can relate to James’s story.  A large percentage of people do not identify as “morning people” (myself included).  This pattern of preferring evenings to mornings is particularly common in tweens and teens.  However, skipping breakfast (or not having a brain-healthy breakfast) can be downright problematic for people who have ADHD, learning concerns, or are required to think during the day.  Good nutrition, particularly in the morning, is essential if you do have ADHD, learning concerns, or problems with executive functioning.

Many people ask if vitamin deficiencies or food intolerances cause ADHD.  The answer is, “It’s complicated.”   Most of the time, the answer is, “no.”  A small percentage of people have nutritional deficiencies or autoimmune disorders.  In these cases, nutritional deficiencies have a pronounced impact on concentration, learning, and mood.  For your average person with ADHD or Learning Concerns, this is often not the case.

Nonetheless, good nutrition is very important.  Here are some nutrition suggestions that HAVE been found by established research to have an impact on brain-functioning

Big Breakfast

Protein in the morning is very important

Without the proper amount of protein, it is almost impossible to control our actions, manage our attention, and balance our mood. Our bodies use protein to make neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals needed for our brain cells to communicate with each other.  If our brain cells are communicating well, we can’t think clearly, problem-solve, learn, or remember.

As a result, making sure that you include protein in your morning diet can be very helpful.  Eggs, cheese, peanut butter, and dairy all contain protein.  Many children will also eat chicken nuggets (or even the soy chicken nuggets), even if they are fussy eaters.  Without protein, we often do not think well throughout the day.

Iron is also a healthy brain chemical

Iron improves the oxygen flow to the brain. Without oxygen, our body doesn’t use our brain cells properly.  We also need oxygen (and iron) to build the neurotransmitters that were described in the last section.  Iron levels will need to be monitored by your doctor.  Always check with a doctor before starting an iron supplement.  However, many foods that are rich in iron are very good for your brain.  Foods like spinach, dark leafy greens, broccoli, and fortified cereals often are good sources of iron.

Essential Fatty Acids are also a terrific “brain food”

nutrition ADHD

EFA’s are often found in things like fish oil or omega-3 fatty acids.  They must be eaten because the body has a hard time synthesizing these substances. They are commonly found in food like fatty fish, nuts, or fish-oil supplements.  EFA’s help protect the covering to our nerve cells, improving communication between our cells.  Some studies have found strong cognitive benefits, sleep benefits, and mood benefits as well.

Vitamin D deficiencies can be linked to ADHD symptoms

It is not uncommon for people in Northern climates to have Vitamin D deficiencies. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is naturally present in very few foods. It is also produced when ultraviolet rays from sunlight strike the skin and trigger vitamin D synthesis.  Unfortunately, it is hard to get the amount of sunlight needed when people are inside all day, or live in climates without a lot of sun.

Vitamin D plays an important role in brain health. It regulates brain enzymes that are involved in neurotransmitter synthesis and nerve growth. In addition, animal and laboratory studies suggest vitamin D protects neurons and reduces inflammation.  Recent research has also found higher rates of Vitamin D deficiencies in children with ADHD symptoms.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means that you should only use supplements under a doctor’s care.  You can also increase Vitamin D intake by getting outside everyday and eating a diet of Vitamin D-rich foods.  These foods include: fatty fish, dairy products that are fortified with Vitamin D, egg yolks, and mushrooms.

What does this mean for someone with ADHD?

  • Eat breakfast everyday, and make sure that you get protein.
  • Eat a balanced diet with vitamin-rich foods, like fruits and vegetables.
  • Get outside every day if you can.
  • Work with your physician to monitor your Iron and Vitamin D levels.
  • If needed, take supplements as directed from your care provider.


Atten Defic Hyperact Disord. 2014 Jun;6(2):73-8. doi: 10.1007/s12402-014-0130-5. Epub 2014 Mar 9.


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