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Protein for ADHD: Boosting Brain Power and Focus

A photo of a collection of high protein foods with text that reads "Protein for ADHD: Boosting Brain Power and Focus"

“Protein for ADHD: Boosting Brain Power and Focus” was written by Kate Hermiston BSc Hons. and reviewed/edited by Rivah Goldstein MScFN, RD and Jackie Silver MHSc, RD.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links with which I may earn a small commission but at no additional cost to you. Affiliate links help bloggers like me to provide you with free content. All opinions expressed here are genuine. 
Medical Disclaimer: The information in this article is meant for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be personalized medical or nutrition advice. For a plan tailored to your needs, please consult with a Registered Dietitian or qualified healthcare professional.

Last updated: May 25, 2023

Intro to Protein for ADHD

Food can have a powerful effect on the brain! Did you know that what we eat can positively or negatively impact our cognitive function? 

This blog post will explore the connection between protein and ADHD symptoms, as well as providing ways to incorporate more protein into your life!

What is Protein? 

Protein is one of the three major macronutrients that our body needs to stay healthy (the others being carbohydrates and fat). Macronutrients are the nutrients needed by the body in large amounts in order to provide our body with energy. 

A collection of high protein foods with a small blackboard that says "Protein" in white chalk - Protein for ADHD

Different foods contain some or all of these macronutrients, and each macronutrient plays a different role in our body. In this blog post, we will be focusing specifically on the protein macronutrient.

Every cell in the human body contains protein (1). When looking at the actual structure of proteins, they are made up of chains of amino acids (the individual components that make up protein). This means that when we eat protein, the food is broken down into different amino acids. Once digested, amino acids can combine together to form the protein that our body needs to function (1).

Amino acids

Some roles of protein include:

  • Helps maintain our muscle mass
  • Repairing the body’s tissues (such as for wound healing)
  • Transporting nutrients throughout the body
  • Precursors of hormones and neurotransmitters – this means that they help carry messages around the body to tell it what it can or can’t do (2).

I could talk about the functions of proteins forever but let’s dive into the role of proteins and the brain.

The role of protein for the brain

How does the brain work?

The brain functions like a giant computer. It uses special cells called neurons to carry messages back and forth between the brain and the rest of the body (3). This is how our body knows how to act in different situations. These neurons are able to communicate with each other using neurotransmitters (4). 

A graphic of blue glowing laptops connected by dotted lines

I briefly mentioned that amino acids (the building block of proteins) function as precursors to neurotransmitters – they tell the neurotransmitters what they can and cannot do. This is vitally important for the brain! 

When we eat protein, it gets digested in our bodies and broken back down into amino acids. In other words, without protein, our body would not be able to carry important messages to our cells or function properly. 

What is the connection between protein and ADHD?

Why do we need protein for ADHD? 

Dopamine 

It is believed that a specific neurotransmitter called dopamine is connected to ADHD symptoms (5). Dopamine is responsible for controlling our memory, mood, attention, and movement (6). Individuals with ADHD often produce less dopamine compared to people without ADHD, and as a result may experience poor attention, impulsiveness, distractibility, and hyperactivity (7). 

When you have high levels of dopamine in your brain you feel more alert, motivated, focused, and happy (6)!  It is called the “feel-good” hormone because it gives you a sense of pleasure. 

Providing your body with protein for ADHD may result in higher levels of dopamine, which could possibly help manage ADHD symptoms, such as attention and focus. This is because our body needs amino acids to produce dopamine (eating protein = amino acid production = more dopamine!) (8).

A graphic showing how protein from food leads to dopamine

Protein and Blood Sugar 

Did you know that protein can help stabilize blood sugar levels?! When we consume protein, it slows down the digestion of carbohydrates and prevents large spikes in blood sugar levels commonly seen with consumption of refined sugars (10). 

Spikes in blood sugar are often followed by a drop in blood sugar leading to symptoms such as irritability, fatigue, and poor concentration

Extreme fluctuations in blood sugar levels affect our ability to concentrate. Protein can help maintain stable blood sugar levels which can help us maintain energy, focus and concentration throughout the day. This in turn helps manage ADHD symptoms. 

A graphic that shows fluctuating blood sugar levels after eating meals without protein and how it affects the body
A graphic that shows stable blood sugar levels after eating meals with protein and how it affects the body

Sources of protein for ADHD

  • Eggs 
  • Lean meats and poultry such as turkey and chicken
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Beans, peas, and lentils 
  • Dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cheese, and cottage cheese
  • Tofu

How much protein should I eat?

Determining how much protein to eat each day can be overwhelming! Canada’s Food Guide provides a plate method that allows you to visually see if you are eating enough protein. When looking at your plate, ¼ of your meal should come from protein. Click here for more information on the healthy plate method. 

A graphic showing how much protein, vegetable and fruit, and grains and starches one should consume

A good rule of thumb is to aim to include a protein source in each meal and snack. If you do this you will most likely meet your individual protein requirements!

What happens if you don’t eat enough protein throughout the day?

Since individuals with ADHD already have lower dopamine levels, when they don’t eat enough protein their dopamine levels may become even lower (5). 

Low dopamine levels decrease one’s ability to concentrate (6). Since dopamine is already low in people with ADHD, they often struggle to pay attention as is. With even lower dopamine levels,  concentration can worsen more. 

Protein for ADHD: Spreading out protein throughout the day

It is important to spread your protein intake evenly throughout the day. Remember that point I made about protein helping to stabilize blood sugars? We can focus better when our blood sugar levels are stable

Try following the plate method mentioned above to add some extra protein to your meals and  snacks! 

When we spread out our protein intake throughout our meals and snacks our body is better able to utilize the benefits from dietary protein (11). When we continuously supply our body with protein, we give it more precursors for dopamine!  

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Protein-rich meal ideas for ADHD

Knowing what to eat can be overwhelming so we came up with a list of simple protein-rich recipes for you!

Creamy Pesto Salmon | Healthy Fitness Meal

This recipe takes less than 30 minutes to make and is a great source of protein for ADHD. You can pair it with rice, pasta, potatoes, and some veggies for a complete meal.

Crockpot Turkey Chili | House of Yumm

An aerial shot of turkey chili in a white bowl - protein for ADHA
Photo by House of Yumm

Slow cooker recipes are great options for weekday dinners. This chili is loaded with protein from the turkey and the beans and will leave you full for hours!

Deconstructed High-Protein Lasagna | Jackie Silver Nutrition

A pot of deconstructed lasagna with a silver spoon - protein for ADHD
Photo by Jackie Silver Nutrition

One-pot recipes are fantastic for folks with ADHD because they are simple and reduce the amount of dishes to clean! This recipe tastes just like a lasagna but without the hassle of forming each layer. It is a favorite amongst my clients and the ultimate comfort meal. One batch lasts several meals

Chickpea Salad | Natasha’s Kitchen

A bowl of chickpea salad with a wooden spoon - recipe with protein for ADHD
Photo by Natasha’s Kitchen

Chickpeas are an excellent source of plant based protein for ADHD! This salad is loaded with chickpeas and delicious vegetables. 

Sesame Ginger Tofu and Veggie Stir Fry | Little Spice Jar

A plate of Sesame Ginger Tofu and Veggie Stir Fry - recipe with protein for ADHD
Photo by Little Spice Jar

This recipe may be a little more challenging to make but I promise it is worth it! Tofu is a great alternative to meat and is packed with protein for ADHD. Stir frys are the ultimate one-pan dish, making it super easy to get that protein in.

For more meal ideas, check out “Ten Minute Meal Ideas” from our online shop.

Snack ideas with protein for ADHD

High Protein Blueberry Pie Smoothie | Jackie Silver Nutrition

A glass of high protein blueberry pie smoothie - recipe with protein for ADHD
Photo by Jackie Silver Nutrition

This protein smoothie makes for the perfect snack or breakfast! It is super filling and  low effort as it only uses 5 ingredients. This recipe is delicious!

Protein Overnight Oats | Jackie Silver Nutrition

3 types of protein overnight oats in separate glasses - recipe with protein for ADHD
Photo by Jackie Silver Nutrition

Overnight oats make for the perfect quick and easy meal prep breakfast. This recipe pairs fiber-rich carbohydrates (oats) with protein (Greek yogurt) to help stabilize blood sugars and set you up for the day.  

Peanut Butter Protein Bars | Chocolate Covered Katie

A small stack of protein bars - recipe with protein for ADHD
Photo by Chocolate Covered Katie

Protein bars are a great way to get some extra protein in during a busy work week. I usually make these at the beginning of the week so I have a quick (and yummy) snack to take on the go. Feel free to play around with different protein powder flavors!

Baked Egg Muffins | Eating Bird Food

This recipe is packed with protein from eggs AND is full of vegetables. You can use any veggies that you have lying around in your fridge or freezer. I will eat these as a snack or as a high protein on-the-go breakfast. 

DIY Trail Mix | The Healthy Maven

DIY trail mix in a white mug - recipe with protein for ADHD
Photo by The Healthy Maven

This trail mix is another great high protein snack that is super easy to prepare and take with you on the go. The protein boost in this recipe comes from the nuts and seeds! Trail mix is versatile and customizable. You can switch up the ingredients and never get bored of it.

For more snack ideas, check out this awesome resource in our online shop

The Bottom Line 

Overall, protein can have many benefits for ADHD symptoms. Please note that it is NOT a cure for ADHD, but it can help support optimal brain function. 

Protein gives us the building blocks (amino acids) needed to make essential neurotransmitters, like dopamine, to enhance focus and keep our brain happy. It also keeps our blood sugar levels stable, which helps us stay focused and energized.

As long as you include a protein source in each of your meals and snacks you should be consuming enough!

Looking for more ADHD content?

Check out other similar blog posts:

References

  1. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002467.htm#:~:text=Proteins%20are%20the%20building%20blocks,cells%20and%20make%20new%20ones
  2. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2020.00023/full 
  3. https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2020.540970 
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279302/#:~:text=The%20brain%20works%20like%20a,the%20root%20of%20human%20intelligence
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2626918/ 
  6. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22581-dopamine 
  7. https://www.proquest.com/docview/2454402142?accountid=15115 
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3649463/ 
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3598008/#:~:text=Hypothesis%3A%20Chronic%20Sugar%20Intake%20May%20Cause%20Symptoms%20of%20ADHD&text=In%20response%2C%20sugar%20intake%20increases,reduction%20in%20striatal%20dopamine%20levels 
  10. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/78/4/734/4690022?login=true 
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31625427/#:~:text=Results%3A%20Those%20meeting%20the%20daily,decreased%20odds%20for%20functional%20disability

About Kate

Hello! My name is Kate Hermiston and I have recently graduated from Western University where I completed a Bachelor of Science with an Honours Specialization in Nutrition and Dietetics. This September, I’ll be taking the next step in my journey to becoming a registered dietitian by  starting my Professional Master’s Diploma (PMDip) at Toronto Metropolitan University in collaboration with North York General hospital. Outside of school, I enjoy baking, staying active at the gym, hanging out with my dogs, and spending time with friends and family.

Jackie silver is wearing a striped dress and is standing in front of a wooden lattice fence

About Jackie

Jackie is a Toronto-based Registered Dietitian whose mission is to empower and support the neurodivergent and physically disabled communities through nutrition. Jackie runs a virtual private practice and blog which has simple recipes and health information tailored to these communities. She loves cooking, exercising, traveling, journaling, and spending time with family and friends.

Check out her full bio here →

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