This post was updated in April 2019.
Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have variable diets. At least that’s been my experience.
They also have what I call side challenges, such as picky eating, unhealthy snacking, weight concerns (both ends of the spectrum), constipation and more.
Nutrition for kids with ADHD is an essential component to their successful management. As a pediatric nutritionist, I’ve helped families establish a healthy diet, while also supporting the daily struggles associated with feeding the child with ADHD.
Combined with medications, diet can be effective in helping children learn, pay attention, and moderate any impulsive behaviors or symptoms of hyperactivity.
Additionally, good nutrition helps your child feel good and grow well.
In this article, you’ll learn why children benefit from a healthy ADHD diet, what is included in the nutrition plan, and how your child may benefit.
What is an ADHD Diet?
An ADHD diet is one that is balanced with nutritious, wholesome foods containing specific nutrients such as magnesium, iron and zinc often found to be inadequate in the child with ADHD.
The diet is low in added sugar, artificial food dyes and other additives.
Additionally, scheduled eating patterns are highlighted to encourage attention, behavior, satiety and growth. Feeding interactions are positive and encouraging.
The Story of a Boy with ADHD
Peter (name changed) had ADHD. He was very thin, ate poorly, and was a picky eater. His diet consisted of mostly white foods, and rarely did a fruit or veggie pass his lips.
Give him crunchy, cheesy, salty, or sweet foods and he was a happy camper!
When Peter was diagnosed, he started on daily medications, which dampened his appetite. There were many days when the majority of his eating happened near the end of the day.
That’s when his medications wore off and he was hungry.
Peter’s mom wanted help with three main things:
- To help him to eat more vegetables,
- To encourage him to try new foods,
- And, to address his thinness by helping Peter gain some weight.
In essence, she wanted (and needed) to transition Peter to a healthy ADHD diet plan. Peter was easily distracted and made careless mistakes, so she was hoping a healthier diet would improve this.
In my professional opinion, I agreed. Peter needed to make the transition to a healthier, nutritious diet.
His nutrition patterns were incomplete and he wasn’t eating enough. This was affecting his growth, behavior and ability to focus. Learning in the classroom was challenging for him.Parents who have kids with ADHD are generally concerned about picky eating, weight, and their child's behavior. #adhddiet #healthyeating #brainfood Click To Tweet
Why Do Children with ADHD Need a Special Diet?
While research is still evolving, there is quite a bit of evidence that good nutrition can help a child with ADHD.
Specifically, a healthy, nutritious and balanced diet can help your child focus, behave better, and get along with others. Feeding the brain and body helps your child’s growth and overall development.
The brain needs nutrients to function well. From carbs to healthy fats, a nutritious diet is like washing the brain in nutrients it needs to function optimally.
Don’t worry, I’ll get to the specifics of what I mean by “nutrients it needs” and “nutritious diet” in a bit.
You probably already know the effects of good nutrition on maximizing your child’s growth and preventing chronic diseases down the road.
The childhood years are an incredibly important foundation to future adult health. Unfortunately, studies have shown that some children with ADHD miss out on key nutrients in their diets and this may influence their ability to focus, behave and grow.
Why You Need to Pay Attention to Nutrition
We inherently know how important nutrition is for all kids. This simple fact is it’s not always easy to achieve. In the child with ADHD, for example, there can be many obstacles to eating well.
Many of the medications used may suppress your child’s appetite, reducing his eating.
When on meds, your child may have little to no appetite.
When off of meds, he may have a voracious appetite.
Some medication may cause stomach pain or nausea, which can be so uncomfortable that kids are disinterested in eating. I cover the reasons why children with ADHD aren’t hungry in this article.
Another barrier to good nutrition is picky eating. Picky eating can stem from a sensory sensitivity to texture, smell or appearance, Or, it can be learned along the way through ineffective feeding approaches.
Picky eating can certainly prevent your child from getting optimal nutrition.
Of course, there are more obstacles. When they pile up on each other, feeding your child can be a real challenge, and a real stress on families.
I’ve personally witnessed how a food system and feeding strategy can help children with ADHD. They feel and function better in the world.
We are learning more about what children with ADHD need nutritionally, which enables us to pinpoint the nutrients and foods that can help them.
An ADHD diet for kids is made up of several components. It includes the ADHD nutrients you want to keep an eye on, adequate calories, and the intervals around eating. Attention to these can help maximize your child’s appetite.
Let’s focus on the nutrients for ADHD here. All of these have been studied (and continue to be!) in children.
Kids with ADHD tend to be lacking fiber in their diet. This is partly due to picky eating that eliminates fruits and vegetables from the diet.
Nuts, seeds and whole grain items like brown rice or whole grain pasta, as well as fruits and vegetables, are great ways to increase the fiber in your child’s diet.
If your child struggles with constipation, you’ll want to make sure fiber and fluids are getting fair representation in the daily diet.
My natural constipation relief guide can give you further insight.
Polyunsaturated Fats (Omega-3 Fatty Acids)
Healthy fats such as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are found mostly in plant sources like nuts, canola or safflower oils and some fish. PUFAs help blood circulate in the brain.
One type of fatty acid, called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) improves blood circulation in the brain.
EPA has been shown in some research to reduce the symptoms of ADHD, including improved attention, and reduced hyperactivity and impulsivity. Other studies have shown little effect.
We need more research. Offering your child sources of plant fats and fish is unlikely to harm him and we have plenty of evidence for other health benefits.
Another fatty acid, called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an important element in nerve cell functioning. A deficit of DHA in the diet has been associated with poor literacy.
Low levels of essential fatty acids/PUFAs are seen in children with ADHD.
“Essential” means these nutrients aren’t made by your child’s body.
These fatty acids need to come from outside the body, in order to meet your child’s requirements for them. In other words, they need to come from food or a fish oil supplement.
Generally, research shows that supplementing with a blend of both EPA and DHA may be effective. Higher dosage levels of EPA in the fish oil blend is preferred.
Again, research is evolving and not conclusive at this time.
In general, the role of magnesium in the body is to help calm nerves and muscles, encourage blood flow throughout the body, and process the calories and nutrients consumed from food.
A deficiency of magnesium has been seen in children with ADHD. It is tied to more distractibility and hyperactivity.
Researchers have noted that a diet rich in magnesium may help children with ADHD pay attention, focus and learn better.
Inadequate iron in the diet, especially in the early years of life, is associated with poor cognitive development.
In other words, when iron deficiency exists during early brain development, the brain may not reach its full intellectual capacity.
An iron deficiency can have additional far-reaching consequences, such as poor immunity, fatigue, and poor learning in children.
Children with ADHD, especially picky eaters, are of concern. They may not be getting good sources of iron in their diet, such as beef, poultry, beans and dark leafy greens.
A documented iron deficiency should be treated with iron supplementation under the direction of your healthcare provider. You’ll also want to optimize iron sources in the diet.
Too much iron can be harmful, so a healthcare professional can help you get the dosage right.
Some children with ADHD experience symptoms of iron deficiency. This can include trouble sleeping and restless leg syndrome. Even if iron levels fall within the low end of normal range, kids can have symptoms.
Iron supplementation in children with ADHD who are not iron-deficient may not be effective.
Like iron, zinc is involved in brain development, nerve communication and other activities of the brain.
In children with ADHD, poor zinc status has been linked to inattentiveness (but not impulsivity or hyperactivity).
Low zinc status is also linked to poor growth and a poor appetite. A zinc deficiency should be treated, possibly with supplementation.
Certainly, optimize zinc intake from food, such as beans, beef, fortified breakfast cereals and milk.
In the typical Western diet and for some individuals, folate is inadequately consumed (despite fortification with folate in many grain products).
Adding foods rich in folate/folic acid has been advised as part of a healthy diet for children with ADHD.
(To learn more about ADHD and nutrition for kids, sign up to get access to my video The ADHD Diet for Kids: Dodging the Most Common Nutrition Mistakes (so You Can Help Your Child Focus, Behave and Grow)
Foods to Avoid with ADHD
Certain foods have been identified as contributing to ADHD-oriented behaviors. These are fast food, red meat, processed meats, potato chips and other similar snack chips, high fat dairy products, and soft drinks.
These are the types of foods that are fine to have in your child’s diet in moderate amounts. If fast food and other processed foods have a stronghold in your child’s diet, you can slowly reduce and minimize them as much as possible.
Also, some children with ADHD react, or are sensitive to, additives in food, including food colors, food preservatives such as MSG, nitrates and nitrites, and artificial sugar (aspartame).
Studies have shown that about 8% of children with ADHD may be sensitive to artificial food colorings. Some experts believe that number to be higher.
If your child is sensitive to any of these, start to downgrade them, slowly but surely, in your child’s diet.
I interviewed Laura Stevens, a researcher in food dyes and how they affect children with ADHD in this episode of The Nourished Child podcast.
A small number of children demonstrate sensitivity to refined sugar (they may become more aggressive). Research isn’t conclusive about whether the sugar itself is the trigger versus the surges in blood sugar when sugary foods are consumed and the plummet afterward. If your child is sensitive, you’ll want to trim it down.
I give you some suggestions about how to slash the sugar contribution in your child’s diet here.
Feeding Children with ADHD
The brain relies on glucose (the simplest form of sugar that circulates in the body after complete digestion of food) for energy.
It makes sense that regular meals and snacks be scheduled to offer up the fuel (calories and nutrients) the brain needs to function well.
It also makes sense that when a child goes for long periods without eating, his behavior, concentration and learning may deteriorate.The brain relies on glucose for energy, so providing a regular supply of energy from food makes sense. Click To Tweet
That’s why I always advise a structure to feeding kids with ADHD. Meal and snack times should be regular and predictable.
For the underweight or low body weight child with ADHD, I recommend more frequent meals and snacks during the day.
Even if your child will only drink a fruit-based smoothie or a cheese stick and crackers, their behavior, focus and general feeling of energy and positivity will benefit from small feedings throughout the day.
Feeding your child with ADHD can be difficult, and a struggle. There may be behaviors, eating habits, and other challenges you have to navigate on a daily basis.
Remember to always try to keep food and feeding a positive encounter, without pressure or negative emotions. Change is good, but keep it slow and gradual!
The ADHD Diet for Kids Program
The ADHD Diet for Kids, a program I developed for parents like you to learn the ins and outs of nutritional management in the child with ADHD, is a game changer.
In this research-based, practical course, I take you through the essential food and nutrients to help your child function at his or her best.
I also coach you on how to feed better so you get the best from your child’s eating and behavior at the table. Last, we troubleshoot issues and challenges, from sleep problems to picky eating, so you can get a handle on them.
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: March 23, 2016
Updated on: October 18, 2019