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ADHD in Children: How A Healthy ADHD Diet can Help

The Healthy ADHD Diet for Kids

A Healthy Diet for ADHD in Children  

An ADHD diet for kids is essential to the successful management of ADHD in children. Together, diet and medications can be effective in helping your child learn, pay attention, and moderate any impulsive behaviors or symptoms of hyperactivity.

Additionally, good nutrition helps your child feel good and grow well.

In my many years of work as a pediatric nutritionist, I’ve worked with families who have a child diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Peter was one of them. 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 with ADHD, 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 the appetite suppressant effects of his medications wore off.

Peter’s mom wanted help with three main things:

In essence, she wanted (and needed) to transition Peter to an 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 diet was incomplete, and this was affecting his growth, behavior and ability to focus. Learning in the classroom was challenging.

Parents who have kids with ADHD are generally concerned about picky eating, weight, and their child's behavior. #adhddiet #healthyeating #brainfood Click To Tweet

{Read} Even Dietitians Have Trouble Feeding Their Kids

What Is the Diet for ADHD in Children?

While research is still evolving, there is quite a bit of evidence that good nutrition can help a child with ADHD.

Specifically, a healthy and nutritious diet can help your child focus, behave better, and get along with others. Feeding the brain and body with those nutrients help your child’s growth and overall development.

The brain needs nutrients to function well. From carbs to healthy fats, a nutritious diet is like bathing the brain in nutrients. The ones 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. 

 

Why Do You Need to Pay Attention to ADHD 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 to treat ADHD may suppress your child’s appetite.

When on meds, your child may have little to no appetite.

When off meds, he may have a voracious appetite. 

Some medication 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.

The Best Diet for ADHD

I’ve personally witnessed how a food system and feeding plan can help ADHD in children. They feel and function better in the world.

We are learning more about what children with ADHD need nutritionally, which makes us better able 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!) on ADHD in children.

Fiber and ADHD

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.

The Healthy ADHD Diet for Kids

Polyunsaturated Fats (Omega-3 Fatty Acids) and ADHD

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.

Generally, research shows that supplementing with a blend of both EPA and DHA may be effective. Higher dosage levels of EPA in the blend is preferred.

Again, research is evolving and not conclusive at this time.

Magnesium and ADHD

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.

Iron and ADHD

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 years of 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.

Zinc and ADHD

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.

Folate and ADHD

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, 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 in Children

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 you should slowly reduce and minimize in your child’s diet 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).

About 8% of children with ADHD may be sensitive to artificial food colorings.

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). If that is the case, trim it out of the diet.

I give you some suggestions about how to slash the sugar contribution in your child’s diet here.

When parents note their child is sensitive to sugar, sometimes it’s a reaction to the blood sugar variations that occur after eating sugary foods.

Feeding Kids 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 every 3 to 4 hours 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 can 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 3 meals and 3 snacks, so there are 6 opportunities to eat 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.

Positive Meals with ADHD 

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!

To learn more, 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)  

My 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, to help you get a handle on them.

Learn more about the ADHD diet for kids here.

 

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  1. You giving us such a good and useful tips and remedies, they amazing I am impressed by your site and got very nice tips and suggestions they very help us. You made this site is awesome. thanks for sharing the best posts they very interesting one

  2. Hi! I’m a little confused. I’ve read articles similar to yours that say “eat this, but not that” and they’re all contradicting. For example, you say that kids with ADHD should eat beef but stay away from red meat. You also recommend that kids stay away from high fat dairy, yet you say it’s okay to give them a cheese stick and crackers for a snack. As I said, I’ve seen this in other articles and it’s really confusing me. My son has just recently been diagnosed. He’s a 6.8 out of 8 on some scale that you may recognize, which I take to mean he’s slightly ADHD but not completely. Still, we have our share of problems. He’s on Strattera, but I think a change in his diet would help. Can you help me clarify my confusion? Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Gina,
      I can understand your confusion. Yes, I have read that red meat is associated with behaviors–that doesn’t necessarily mean it causes negative behaviors. We do know that iron deficiency is problematic for ADHD, so if your son doesn’t seem to be affected by beef, then reasonable amounts should be ok. A cheese stick may be low fat, and the amount of fat a cheese stick contributes to the overall diet may not be adverse. You want to look at the overall day to day and week to week diet and make sure it’s nutritious and not too heavy in fast food, processed/preservative heavy, sugar-laden foods…

  3. Folate, yes. Folic acid, I highly doubt will help. In researching recently to find out what was going on with a bright boy with ADHD whom I was tutoring, I came across studies from just the past decade that pointed to a mechanism whereby excess folic acid could be affecting dopamine and nitric oxide synthesis in the brain, both of which appear related to ADHD. I just submitted a letter to the editor of a nutrition journal about it (you can read more about it on my blog if you’re curious). Ironically, while the letter to the editor was under review, my sister’s 7-year-old started having attention issues which he’d never had before. It turns out that he’d started eating copious amounts of bran flakes in just the past month or two that had 100% of an adult RDA of folic acid in every serving. He’s off that cereal now!

    1. Interesting…most of the folate/folic acid recommendations I have seen for ADHD center around a presumed or actual folate deficiency incurred in the mom during pregnancy, leaving the child at a deficit/low nutrient status. There is one study that looked at folic acid supplementation in pregnant mothers and the outcome incidence of ADHD–those mothers who were supplemented with folic acid had children with a lower likelihood of ADHD vs. those mothers who weren’t supplemented.
      Certainly, there’s always a possibility of overdoing any nutrient, especially with fortified foods. However, in my experience, children with ADHD don’t have the healthiest of diets in terms of food quality (processed foods, sweets), may eat erratically (snacking often rather than eating timely meals) and tend to be picky (low food variety and/or low/high body weight).
      I like to focus on whole foods, eating on a regular schedule (making sure the brain is getting plenty of nutrients to function well), and improving/correcting any obvious nutrient deficits. Here’s the research that dives into the overall healthy diet for ADHD: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/2/330

      Thanks for your comments!

  4. I know you’re a childhood nutritionist, but I’ll ask anyway: what are your recommendations for adults with ADD? Would you change any of these tips? ADD often runs in families, so chances are pretty good that at least one parent is somewhere on the spectrum.

    1. I think these are good dietary practices for adults too, although, as you said, I don’t specialize in this area. Cleaning up the overly processed food and eating regularly are good first steps!

  5. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! I work as a DTR with pediatric patients, and I often see kids with ADHD either with low appetite or an appetite that seems out of control (due to meds). I will be using this with my clients.

  6. My son has ADHD along with other learning delays. I changed his diet in preschool by eliminating artificial dyes, high fructose corn syrup, aspartame and increasing his protein. He is now on a stimulant medication, but it’s half of what it should be. His struggles have lead me to studying nutrition and working my way to becoming an RDN. Great article, Jill!

    1. Wow Wendy–that’s terrific! I’m sure you agree with me that cleaning up the diet and using structure with feeding can really improve behavior and focus in children with ADHD, but it’s not easy to make these modifications. Slow and steady, eh?!