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.
Trigger Warning: there is a section on eating disorders at the end of this article. Please skip this if you think it will trigger you.
An ADHD nutritionist / dietitian plays an important role in the health of kids, teens, and adults with ADHD. They understand the neurodivergent lens and the unique nutritional needs of this population. An ADHD nutritionist knows how to tailor their recommendations to each individual’s unique strengths and abilities as they are aware that ADHD impacts people differently.
Note that in this article, I will be using the terms “nutritionist” and “dietitian” interchangeably but will explain the difference between the two below.
Read on to learn the role ADHD nutritionists / dietitians play in supporting kids, youth, and adults with ADHD.
What is ADHD?
ADHD (Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder) is one of the most common neurodevelopmental conditions in children.1 It can continue into adulthood as well and many adults have undiagnosed ADHD.1 It is characterized by difficulty paying attention, impulsive behaviors, and hyperactivity.1
ADHD is present in roughly 8.4% of children and 2.5% of adults.2 ADHD is typically managed with behavior therapy and medication in children and medication and psychotherapy in adults.2 Nutrition plays an important role in ADHD as well, which we’ll get into soon.
There are three types of ADHD1:
- Hyperactive-impulsive Type: Difficulty sitting still for long periods, fidgeting, restlessness, impulsive behaviors or decisions.
- Inattentive Type: Difficulty paying attention, staying organized, finishing tasks, following instructions, easily distracted.
- Combination Type: the person has a combination of inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms
The Top 5 Reasons You Need an ADHD Nutritionist
- Registered Dietitians are nutrition experts and utilize an evidence-based, client-centered approach
- You will learn how to manage medication side effects (such as low appetite) to ensure adequate growth and development
- ADHD kids and families will get support with supplement recommendations, foods to improve focus and brain health, picky eating and mealtime peace.
- ADHD adults will get support with meal prep and planning, simple snack ideas to maintain focus, and intuitive eating
- ADHD nutritionists can help people with ADHD who have eating disorders
1. Registered Dietitians are the Nutrition Experts
Difference Between a Nutritionist and Dietitian
Registered Dietitians (RDs) are the most qualified nutrition experts to be supporting ADHD children, youth, and adults. You’ll notice that I use the terms “nutritionist” and “dietitian” interchangeably throughout this article. The reason for that is because the term “nutritionist” is more familiar to most people.
There is a difference between the terms though. In Canada, the term “nutritionist” is not a protected title, which means anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist”. That’s right, someone who took a 4-week nutrition course can call themselves a “nutritionist”, so you really don’t know what kind of training they’ve had.
In the US, the terms “Registered Dietitian” (RD) and “Registered Dietitian Nutritionist” (RDN) are protected titles.
The term “dietitian” is a protected title, which means in order to legally use that title, you must complete an accredited 4-year nutrition degree, an accredited 8 month dietetic internship, pass the Canadian Dietetic Registration Exam (CDRE), follow a code of ethical standards, and be a member of your province’s regulating governing body.3
My schooling involved completing an undergraduate degree in Kinesiology, a second undergraduate degree in Nutrition, a Masters of Health Science in Nutrition Communication which included 8 months of dietetic internship rotations with Special Olympics Ontario, outpatient nutrition counseling at a community health centre, and hospital rotations in several different inpatient units. Upon graduating, I then wrote both the Canadian and American dietetic board exams to become licensed in both countries.
In summary, if someone is a dietitian, they are also a nutritionist but not every nutritionist is a dietitian.
Further, in order to maintain our license, dietitians are required to continue their education in order to stay up to date with the latest nutrition science. To keep my US credentials, I need to complete 75 continuing education credits every 5 years.
As an ADHD nutritionist, in order to best serve the nutritional needs of people with ADHD and stay up to date on the latest research, I have done countless continuing education webinars on the topic, completed a 12-week mindful eating training, had conversations with colleagues, and read many ADHD research studies.
Why have I done this? Simply because I am passionate about working with the ADHD and autism community, I love learning, and I want to support my clients the best way I can while keeping their unique needs in mind.
What is Unique About Dietitians?
According to the College of Dietitians of Ontario website, “Registered Dietitians (RDs) in Ontario are trained food and nutrition experts. They are recognized experts in translating scientific, medical, and nutrition information into practical healthy meal plans and helping individuals, their families and communities to access nutrition for health.”3
In simple terms, this means you can trust that your dietitian won’t recommend anything that isn’t backed by scientific research. They also will take a full picture of your lifestyle into account when providing recommendations and won’t go suggesting tons of super expensive supplements or “woo woo” diet trends, as an example. They will meet you and your family where you’re at in your health journey and provide custom, realistic recommendations.
2) You will learn how to manage medication side effects, such as low appetite, to ensure adequate growth and development
There are potential side effects of stimulant drugs used to manage ADHD (eg. Adderall, Concerta, Vyvanse, and Ritalin) such as decreased or loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea, stomach pain, and dry mouth.5 Adults and children taking these medications may experience these side effects.
When appetite is low and kids don’t eat as much, it can negatively impact their growth and development and ability to focus at school. An ADHD nutritionist can support your child and family with strategies for increasing energy and protein intake of the foods your child does eat so that they grow properly and can focus well at school. They can also work around the medication impacts and choose optimal times for your child to eat when their appetite is highest. They may teach your child how to tune into their internal hunger and fullness cues with mindful eating techniques and come up with ways to help your child focus better at meal times without distractions.
For ADHD adults experiencing low appetite from their medications, an ADHD nutritionist/dietitian can help them with similar strategies mentioned above: ways to make every bite count with protein and energy, getting nutrients from liquids and smoothies, and eating more when appetite is highest. These tools can help with focus, concentration, and energy levels.
3) ADHD kids and families will get support with supplement recommendations, foods to improve focus and brain health, picky eating and mealtime peace.
There are an endless amount of supplements on the market claiming to improve ADHD symptoms or even cure it. A dietitian knowledgeable in ADHD has done their research and knows which supplements have solid evidence behind them and which don’t.
For example, children with ADHD are shown to have lower levels of omega-3 in their blood.4 Omega-3 supports memory, cognition, mood, and overall brain health and may play a role in improving some symptoms of ADHD, such as focus and hyperactivity.4 The research shows conflicting results and more is needed.4 Regardless, a dietitian will know what supplements to recommend (or not) for your kid with ADHD.
Some research has shown reduced levels of zinc, iron, magnesium and iodine in children with ADHD.5 An ADHD nutritionist will ensure your child is getting adequate levels of these important nutrients in their diet.
Foods for Brain Health
There are many foods that support brain function, focus, and general energy levels and may play an important role in helping kids (and adults) with ADHD maintain focus and concentration.5
An ADHD nutritionist/dietitian will make practical snack and meal recommendations for your child as well as suggestions for foods to increase intake of. For example, they may recommend foods rich in omega-3 fats which support inflammation and brain health, such as salmon, sardines, herring, walnuts, or flax meal.5
They may also recommend antioxidant rich foods, such as berries, which have also been shown to help with brain function. These are just a few of many recommendations an ADHD dietitian may make.
Picky Eating and Mealtime Peace
While picky eating is common amongst kids, it is more common in those with ADHD. It’s estimated that 40% of children with ADHD are picky eaters!6
ADHD nutritionists / pediatric nutritionists are well versed in how to expand the diets of picky eaters. They have many tips and tricks in their toolkit that parents can apply with their kids and see great results with time, effort, and patience.
I have personally worked with many picky eaters in my private practice and it is very rewarding getting an email from a client telling me their kid ate spinach for the first time (among other stories)! I love working with fussy eaters and I’ve taken courses, webinars, and read books on the topic so I can best support my clients.
Meal times can often be stressful for parents when kids are fussy eaters (or for many other reasons) so a nutritionist will also give you tools for reducing stress and pressure around meal times and creating more structure and routine thereby making meals a more pleasant family experience.
4) ADHD adults will get support with meal prep and planning, simple snack ideas to maintain focus, and intuitive eating
While nutrition plays an important role in adult ADHD, there are very few research studies conducted on the topic. From what I could find, the vast majority of nutrition research has been done on children with ADHD but not adults, which is unfortunate because there are many adults living with ADHD.
Having said that, many adults (and children) with ADHD struggle with executive dysfunction which means skills such as planning, organization, time management, and problem-solving are difficult for them.7
This makes everyday tasks such as meal planning, deciding what to eat, grocery shopping, and keeping a fridge stocked challenging. Further, people with ADHD are more likely to skip meals, such as breakfast and dinner.8 ADHD nutritionists / dietitians can work with ADHD adults to come up with strategies to help them prepare and plan out three meals per day in advance in a way that works with their executive dysfunction.
An ADHD nutritionist can also support you with the following:
- Come up with simple snacks that regulate blood sugars and help you stay focused
- Setting timers to remind yourself to eat at times when you are hyper focused on work and forget about your appetite
- Develop strategies for getting enough nutrition with low appetite from your ADHD meds
- Develop ways to eat 3 balanced meals and snacks throughout the day to prevent impulsive food choices and/or late night binges when your meds wear off
- Make a list of convenience foods to have on hand when hunger strikes and you don’t know what to eat
- Supplement recommendations
- Intuitive eating skills to teach you how to tune into your body’s innate hunger and fullness cues and how to cope with emotional and/or impulsive eating
5) ADHD nutritionists can help people with ADHD who have eating disorders
Research has shown a link between children, youth, and adults with ADHD and eating disorders such as binge eating disorder (BED), bulimia nervosa (BN), and anorexia nervosa (AN).8 Possible explanations for this are the difficulties with executive function and impulsivity seen in ADHD as well as anxiety and depression.8,9
Please note that this is a complicated, multifaceted topic that I have barely scratched the surface on in this article. I am not an eating disorder expert at all and I personally don’t work with eating disorder clients in my private practice. I am simply bringing light to this important topic.
An eating disorder dietitian is one healthcare professional part of a team of professionals that can support people with ADHD who also have an eating disorder.
For support with eating disorders, please see these resources:
- National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC)
- National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
- Eating Disorder Hope
- National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD)
Hopefully, now I’ve convinced you why ADHD children, teens, and adults NEED to see an ADHD nutritionist / dietitian. This community has unique nutritional needs that have the power to improve their general health, reduce meal time stress, expand their food repertoire, recommend supplements, learn intuitive eating tools, and teach them meal prep and planning skills.
There is so much confusing information out there about diet and ADHD that is not based on scientific evidence. A Registered Dietitian who understands ADHD will separate fact from fiction for you and provide evidence-based recommendations tailored to your unique needs.
From expanding diet preferences as children to learning meal prep skills as adults and everywhere in between, nutrition can benefit individuals with ADHD during all life stages.
To learn more about my 1:1 nutrition counseling services for ADHD, click here to see my paediatric packages and here to see my adult packages.
Looking for ADHD-friendly recipes? Check out my peanut butter cup smoothie, 10 high protein vegetarian salads, meal prep tofu recipes, and one-bowl chocolate chip oatmeal banana bread.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, September 23). What is ADHD? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/facts.html#:~:text=ADHD%20is%20one%20of%20the,)%2C%20or%20be%20overly%20active.
- American Psychiatric Association. (n.d.). What is ADHD? Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/adhd/what-is-adhd
- College of Dietitians of Ontario. (n.d.). About registered dietitians. College of Dietitians – About Registered Dietitians. Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://www.collegeofdietitians.org/public/about-registered-dietitians.aspx
- Heilskov Rytter, M. J., Andersen, L. B., Houmann, T., Bilenberg, N., Hvolby, A., Mølgaard, C., Michaelsen, K. F., & Lauritzen, L. (2014). Diet in the treatment of ADHD in children—a systematic review of the literature. Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, 69(1), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.3109/08039488.2014.921933
- Konikowska, K., Regulska-Ilow, B., & Różańska, D. (2012). THE INFLUENCE OF COMPONENTS OF DIET ON THE SYMPTOMS OF ADHD IN CHILDREN. Roczniki Państwowego Zakładu Higieny, 127–134. https://doi.org/https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230754514
- Thorsteinsdottir, S., Olsen, A., & Olafsdottir, A. S. (2021). Fussy eating among children and their parents: Associations in parent-child dyads, in a sample of children with and without neurodevelopmental disorders. Nutrients, 13(7), 2196. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13072196
- Rodden, J. (2022, February 28). What is executive dysfunction? sign and symptoms of EFD. ADDitude. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.additudemag.com/what-is-executive-function-disorder/
- Ptacek, R., Stefano, G., Weissenberger, S., Akotia, D., Raboch, J., Papezova, H., Stepankova, T., Goetz, M., & Domkarova, L. (2016). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and disordered eating behaviors: Links, risks, and challenges faced. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 571. https://doi.org/10.2147/ndt.s68763
- Reinblatt, S. P. (2015). Are eating disorders related to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder? Current Treatment Options in Psychiatry, 2(4), 402–412. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40501-015-0060-7
Jackie is a Toronto-based Registered Dietitian with a Masters of Health Science (MHSc) in Nutrition Communications. Her mission is to empower and support neurodivergent and physically disabled communities through a weight-inclusive lens to manage their condition, prevent complications, and live active lifestyles through nutrition. Jackie runs a virtual private practice and consulting business and runs her blog which has simple recipes and health information for the disability and autism/ADHD communities.