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Living with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be challenging for any person, but children with ADHD may have a particularly difficult time. They haven’t yet learned life skills for basic living, let alone developed the ability to work through common ADHD challenges.
Because of this, condition management typically becomes a parent’s job, and an ADHD diet is one direction some turn to in that journey. Learn what an ADHD diet is and whether it can help children. We also share which foods to include, which ones to avoid, and additional tips when implementing an ADHD diet for kids.
What Is an ADHD Diet for Kids?
There is no scientifically specific ADHD diet. Instead, there are several ways to approach changing a child’s diet to better manage their ADHD symptoms. The following are three general focuses, all of which can be used separately or in combination.
Studies have linked ADHD symptoms in children with low levels of nutrients such as magnesium and vitamin D. Making sure kids eat foods that are higher in nutrition can help ensure that they get all the vitamins and minerals they need.
Good nutrition is vital to overall wellness. So, ensuring that a child eats nutrient-rich foods is a great idea in general, ADHD aside.
An elimination diet is used to discern if a person has food sensitivities. It involves cutting out most foods for a short period and then reintroducing them one by one. The idea is that if a specific food is causing an issue, it will be identified when reintroduced into the diet.
Studies have shown that eliminating and then reintroducing foods may prove useful in identifying food items that affect ADHD. That makes this a viable approach to try if there is concern that certain foods may be contributing to a child’s ADHD symptoms.
It can be hard to get kids to eat highly nutritious food. Because of this, some people give their children supplements to make sure they’re getting the vitamins and minerals they need. But it’s important to speak with their pediatrician first.
Most children get all the nutrients they need from their diet—even if they’re picky eaters. This can make dietary supplements unnecessary. An ADHD-focused dietitian can also help decide if supplements may be needed for a child and, if so, which ones.
Effectiveness of an ADHD Diet
While diet is not believed to be a cause of ADHD, research indicates that it can impact a child’s symptoms. If a child has an allergy or intolerance to the food, for instance, eating it can affect their behavior. Foods can also affect their behaviors through its impact on the gut-brain axis.
Other studies support using an elimination diet to reduce ADHD symptoms in children. One piece of research indicates that more research is needed in this area, but these diets appear to be one of the “most promising dietary interventions” for this purpose.
Foods to Include In an ADHD Diet for Kids
The following food groups are believed to be most beneficial for children with ADHD.
Before adding these foods to a child’s diet, it’s important to make sure the child isn’t allergic or sensitive to these items.
Protein is an important macronutrient for children with ADHD. Eating protein enables their bodies to make the neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain) needed for focus, attention, and calmness.
Whey protein is one protein type that has been proven to help reduce ADHD symptoms. Since whey protein is from cows, it may be contaminated with herbicides or pesticides. For this reason, it’s best to seek grass-fed, pasture-raised, organic products. Plant-based proteins are another option.
- Meats like poultry and lean beef
Carbohydrates can positively impact ADHD by helping the brain release serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood.
While all carbohydrates help promote the release of serotonin, complex carbs are the best choice. They are full of fiber because they are left in their natural (or close to natural) state. More fiber slows digestion which, in turn, slows the release of serotonin into the system. This can help avoid feeling quick highs and lows.
Complex Carb Foods
- Root vegetables (e.g., sweet potatoes and beets)
- Whole grains (e.g., brown rice and quinoa)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for brain health in all people. However, people with ADHD, including children, tend to have lower levels in their systems. Increasing these levels can help improve ADHD symptoms.
Foods High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Sea bass
- Crustaceans (e.g., oysters, shrimp)
- Plant-based foods (e.g., chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, and soybeans)
Foods to Avoid in an ADHD Diet for Kids
As much as some foods can help improve and reduce symptoms of ADHD in kids, others have been shown to have the opposite effect. That makes avoiding or at least limiting these foods helpful for managing ADHD.
Refined or Simple Carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates, also referred to as simple carbs, are processed and therefore less nutritious than their natural counterparts. They’re often the main ingredient in packaged snack foods for kids, such as chips, crackers, and fruit snacks.
Sugar, a simple carb, has been positively linked with ADHD symptoms. Some studies even suggest that one of the effects of consuming a lot of refined sugar is an increased risk of developing ADHD.
Other refined carbs, like white flour, help our bodies produce serotonin but lack the fiber needed for it to be a slow and steady release. Instead, they create a spike and crash effect—also having this effect on blood sugar.
Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, many sodas, and energy drinks. Since it can increase focus in people who do not have ADHD, it may be tempting to let a child with ADHD have some too. Yet, it may not have the desired effect.
Research indicates that regularly consuming high levels of caffeine over time is associated with a greater number of ADHD symptoms. This study further indicates that another consequence of excessive caffeine intake for people with ADHD is lower well-being.
For children, consuming too much caffeine can not only be dangerous but even potentially toxic.
Food dyes have been shown to cause some troublesome outcomes in children, such as worsening ADHD symptoms. Both red and yellow dyes may have problematic effects on children’s behavior and neurology.
Blue is another artificial food color (ACF) that can have adverse effects on ADHD symptoms in children. One review of four studies suggests that three potential reasons for this are that ACFs change neurotransmitter levels, they contribute to nutritional deficiencies, and they may instigate allergic reactions.
Avoid any foods with additives and choose whole foods that have minimal ingredients, whenever possible. This means choosing foods that have mostly (if not all) recognizable foods listed as the ingredients.
Food additives are found in processed foods and are typically the chemical-sounding words at the end of a nutrition label that can’t easily be defined. Examples include sodium benzoate and red dye #40.
Additional ADHD Diet Tips
Changing a child’s diet completely may not be a pleasant experience for them, even though it can potentially improve their ADHD. One way to make it more enjoyable is to offer them healthy treats so that they don’t feel punished by their new diet.
Johns Hopkins recommends including foods from two or more food groups in these snacks. Greek yogurt with berries is a nutritious snack that provides both protein and fruit. Carrots dipped in hummus is another option that provides veggies and protein.
Other ways to help children get excited about developing healthy eating habits include:
- Focus less on restricting certain foods and more on choosing foods that offer nutrition and joy.
- Set aside time for breakfast each morning to refuel their body’s energy levels and stabilize their moods.
- Help the child learn how to recognize their body’s cues, such as when they’ve had enough to eat.
- Encourage them to stay hydrated, such as by giving them a water bottle that makes them want to drink more.
- Nurture the child’s independence and foster their ability to make healthy food choices by asking them for help with food prep, meal selections, and grocery shopping.