Ketogenic Diet and ADHD: How Effective Is It?

A ketogenic diet shows potential benefits in the management of ADHD symptoms.  Learn more about the ketogenic diet and ADHD on HealthyPlace.

A ketogenic diet and ADHD treatment have, up until recently, rarely been discussed in conjunction with one another. While research on new ways to manage the symptoms of ADHD is ever emerging, much of that research is now focused on the connection between nutrition and ADHD, and, more specifically, the use of a ketogenic diet and ADHD. Although there are mixed opinions in the mental health field, many have experienced the behavioral and cognitive benefits of following a ketogenic diet for ADHD.

The Ketogenic Diet and ADHD

How would the ketogenic diet be helpful to a person with ADHD? First, it’s important to understand how the ketogenic diet works.

The ketogenic diet was named as such based on the origin of the word ketogenic. “Keto” comes from the naturally occurring process within the body where small fuel molecules called “ketones” are produced. Ketones essentially “take over” to fuel the body when a person’s blood sugar (also referred to as glucose) is too low. Glucose levels often dip when a person is sleeping or during periods of dieting/fasting.  Ketones are capable of fueling the entire body, including the brain. Ketones are produced in the liver from the breakdown of fats.

Following a ketogenic diet, the body switches almost entirely to running off of fat. This causes insulin levels to dip to very low levels, and facilitates the quick burning of fat. Of course, if someone is trying to lose weight, the ketogenic diet can be hugely beneficial, but there are other benefits as well. A ketogenic diet can promote increased sustenance of energy, improved focus and capacity to focus. Thus, it is not surprising people have found success when it comes to the ketogenic diet and ADHD.

Initially, much research regarding the ketogenic diet was done on children with epilepsy. These studies not only showed improvement in epileptic behaviors, but also in hyperactivity levels, attentiveness, and cognitive abilities (Neal, Chaffe, Schwartz, et. al., 2008).

What to Eat on a Ketogenic Diet?

As with any food for ADHD regimen, there are variations to the ketogenic diet. But, in general, to follow a ketogenic diet, one should focus on consuming low levels of carbohydrates, high amounts of healthy fats, and adequate protein.

  • Meat – grass-fed beef, dark meat chicken
  • Oil and Fats – the ketogenic diet incorporates high fat oils and foods such as olive oil, coconut oil, heavy cream, nuts, avocado, butter
  • Eggs – eggs are considered one of the most wholesome ketogenic foods, due to the healthy fat and micronutrients contained.
  • Veggies – leafy greens (spinach, arugula), celery, asparagus
  • Fish and other seafood – fatty fish such as salmon

What to Avoid on a Ketogenic Diet?

  • Refined fats/oils - sunflower, corn, grapeseed, and canola oils, and trans fats such as margarine should be avoided.
  • Grains – in terms of a ketogenic diet and ADHD, the consumption of grains (even whole grains such as wheat, rye, etc.) should be kept to minimal levels
  • Sugar – sugar triggers the secretion of insulin from the pancreas, which can result in an increase in epinephrine.  Increased epinephrine can lead to the activation of reactions in the nervous system, causing in hyperactivity (ADHD and Sugar: How Sugar Affects Your ADHD Child’s Behavior).

Although more evidence is needed to provide a conclusive picture of the benefits of a ketogenic diet for ADHD, the current research points to its effectiveness in symptom management.

If you are thinking about the possible advantages of a ketogenic diet and ADHD for either yourself or your child, it is important to consult a medical professional or dietitian. This way, any potential nutrient deficiencies (or other medical complications) can be monitored.

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Last Updated: 23 May 2018

Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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