Diet hasn’t been shown to cause attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. Additionally, diet alone can’t account for the symptoms of ADHD. However, there’s no denying that diet plays a crucial role in physical and mental health, especially for growing children.
Children with ADHD have extra challenges. Fueling them with good, nutritious food goes a long way toward helping them cope and stay healthy.
Far too many children aren’t getting the vitamins, minerals, and fiber they need. All children require a diet rich in:
- whole grains
- healthy fats
- calcium-rich foods
Such a diet may or may not improve symptoms of ADHD in children, but it will provide them a foundation for good health.
Fruits and veggies
Fruits and vegetables provide the vitamins and minerals that growing children need. It also provides them with much needed fiber. Fruit and veggies make a convenient snack food, and they’re easy to pack in school lunches. Fruit in particular can satisfy a sweet tooth.
Whole grains are unrefined and contain bran and germ. Whole grains are an excellent source of fiber, plus a variety of other nutrients. Add them to your child’s diet through foods such as:
- snack foods
Protein is important to muscle and tissue growth. Meat is an excellent source for protein. Be sure to choose lean cuts that have low amounts of fat. Avoid processed meats. If you don’t want meat in your child’s diet or want to reduce their consumption of meat, they can get protein from the following:
Our bodies need fat, but not all fats are equal. Emphasize the healthy fats, which include monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids. Pick a good selection of foods with healthy fats for your kids from the list below.
- canola, olive, and peanut oils
- sesame seeds
- safflower and sunflower oils
Omega-3 fatty acids
- chia seeds
Calcium is a bone-fortifying mineral that is crucial during early childhood and the adolescent years. This is when bones grow at very fast rates. This essential mineral also plays a role in nerve impulses and hormone production. Calcium is rich in dairy milk, yogurt, and cheese. It’s also found in calcium-fortified plant milks such as flax milk, almond milk, and soy milk. Broccoli, beans, lentils, canned fish with bones, and dark leafy greens are plant sources rich in calcium.
Foods to avoid
Research has not shown any specific food that causes or cures ADHD. Some foods may affect your child more than others. If you believe a particular food or ingredient aggravates your child’s symptoms, eliminate it from their diet to see if it makes a difference.
According to Harvard Medical School, studies show that artificial food coloring may increase hyperactivity in some children. Many foods marketed to children, such as cereals and fruit drinks, use food dyes to make them brightly-colored. Try eliminating these foods from your child’s diet and see if their symptoms improve.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the European Union (EU) now requires manufacturers to include a warning on foods with certain additives. The label states that the food may have a negative effect on attention and activity in children.
Studies have not proven that sugar consumption causes hyperactive behavior, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). We do know that too much sugar is unhealthy. Evidence that we eat far more sugar than we should is abundant. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that the average American gets 10 percent of their calories from added sugars. One in 10 Americans gets 25 percent or more of their calories from sugar. Too much sugar contributes to weight gain. In turn this can increase the risk of developing other health problems, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Other foods that can lead to obesity and high cholesterol include saturated fats, hydrogenated fats, and trans fats. Avoid giving your kids large amounts of foods that contain these fats. Examples include:
Hydrogenated and trans fats
- packaged snacks
- processed foods
- fast foods
- some frozen pizzas
Fast food and processed foods are generally unhealthy because they contain too much of the following ingredients:
- unhealthy fats
Processed foods in general are very high in calories, and filled with chemical additives and preservatives. They have little or no nutritional value. This type of food fills the belly, but leaves the body wanting.
|Instead of this||Choose this|
|• prepackaged fruit-flavored snacks||• real fruit, such as apples, oranges, bananas, pears, nectarines, plums, raisins, grapes
• homemade fruit smoothie
• dried fruit
|• potato chips and other crunchy munchies||• pan-popped popcorn, with little or no butter and salt
• baked whole-grain chips or pretzels
• diced carrots and celery, with hummus
• broccoli and cauliflower, with fresh salsa or yogurt dip
• roasted chickpeas
|• ice cream||• yogurt
• cut up watermelon and cantaloupe, or other fruit mixture
• homemade fruit smoothies
|• candy bars, cookies, and other sweets||• dried fruit and nut mixture
• dark chocolate covered fruit
|• popular kiddie cereals||• whole-grain, high fiber cereal, with fresh berries and nuts|
|• instant oatmeal packets with added sugars||• plain oatmeal, with bananas, berries, or stone fruit|
Most children benefit from routine. For a child with ADHD a routine is especially helpful. Schedule regular meal and snack times, if you can. Try not to let your child go for more than a few hours without eating. Too much time between meals and snacks may lead to overindulging later.
Avoid fast food restaurants and junk food aisles in the grocery store. One of the reasons we eat so many bad foods is because they’re easy to access. To eliminate the temptation, don't keep junk foods in your home. Stock plenty of fruits and veggies to satisfy growling stomachs in a pinch.
If your child is used to eating a lot of bad food, change won’t come easily. It takes some time for children to connect dietary changes to feeling healthier.
Ask your child’s doctor if you should give them a multivitamin or other nutritional supplements. A dietitian can also help you get your family’s eating habits on the right track.
Healthy dietary habits begin in childhood and can last a lifetime. Children with ADHD are no exception to this rule. They too should maintain a well-balanced healthy diet. Research has not shown any specific food to cause or cure ADHD in children, But as with all kids, its best to avoid excessive amounts of sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats.
One of the most important things you can do is set a good example. Make sure your own diet is healthy. Your children depend on you to provide the meals and snacks they need to make it through the day. Make healthy choices and use these tips to keep your kid healthy while coping with ADHD.