Highlights

  • Diet plays a crucial role in physical and mental health for growing children.
  • There’s no evidence that diet alone can cause or worsen symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
  • Fueling children with good, nutritious food goes a long way toward helping them cope with ADHD and stay healthy.
Healthline

There’s no evidence that diet can cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children or that diet alone can account for symptoms.

However, diet plays a crucial role in physical and mental health, especially for growing children.

Like adults, children need a diet that focuses on fresh ingredients and is low in added sugar and processed foods.

Healthy food choices include:

  • vegetables
  • fruits
  • whole grains
  • protein
  • healthy fats
  • calcium-rich foods

Such a diet may or may not improve symptoms of ADHD in children, but it will lay a foundation for overall good health.

Fruits and vegetables supply the vitamins and minerals that growing children need. They also provide antioxidants — which help the body remove unwanted toxins — and fiber.

Fruit and veggies make a convenient snack food. They’re easy to pack in school lunches and fruit can also satisfy a sweet tooth.

Whole grains

Whole grains are unrefined and contain bran and germ. They provide fiber and other nutrients.

Add them to your child’s diet through foods such as:

  • cereals
  • breads
  • snack foods

Protein

Protein is essential for muscle and tissue growth.

Good sources include:

  • lean meat
  • eggs
  • beans
  • peas
  • nuts
  • dairy
  • dairy alternatives, such as soy milk

Processed meats, like other processed foods, contain other ingredients that may not be healthy. It is best to avoid these.

Healthy fats

Fat is essential for energy, cell growth, and to help the body absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Pick a good selection of foods with healthy fats from the list below.

Monounsaturated fats

  • avocado
  • seeds
  • nuts
  • olives and olive oil
  • peanut oils

Polyunsaturated fats

  • corn oil
  • sesame seeds
  • soybeans
  • legumes
  • safflower and sunflower oils

Omega-3 fatty acids

  • herring
  • mackerel
  • salmon
  • sardines
  • flaxseeds
  • chia seeds
  • walnuts

Saturated fats

  • meat
  • dairy products
  • ghee
  • coconut oil and coconut cream

The American Heart Association has long recommended limiting the intake of saturated fats, but not all experts agree.

Calcium-rich foods

Calcium is a mineral that is crucial for bone health, especially during early childhood and adolescence. It also plays a role in nerve impulses and hormone production.

Calcium is present in:

  • dairy milk
  • yogurt
  • cheese
  • calcium-fortified plant milks, such as flax, almond, and soy milk
  • broccoli
  • beans
  • lentils
  • canned fish with bones
  • dark leafy greens

Click here to get some healthy meal plans for kids.

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• Prepackaged fruit-flavored snacks• Real fruit, such as apples, oranges, bananas, pears, nectarines, plums, raisins, grapes
• Homemade fruit smoothie
• Dried fruit without added sugar
• 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• Plain yogurt sweetened with fruit
• 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

Experts have not found that any specific food can cause ADHD or worsen its symptoms. However, some people say that specific foods have an impact.

Here are some of the ingredients that may make a difference:

Food coloring

A 2012 review concluded that artificial food coloring may increase hyperactivity in some children, but not specifically those with ADHD.

Many foods marketed to children, such as cereals and fruit drinks, use food dyes to make them brightly colored.

Eliminating these foods from your child’s diet may help manage their symptoms.

Sugar

A number of studies have looked at whether sugar consumption affects ADHD. A 2019 study that looked at data for nearly 3,000 children aged 6–11 years found no link between sugar and hyperactivity in ADHD.

However, eating too much sugar may increase the risk of obesity, which can lead to metabolic disease, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Sugary foods often provide unnecessary calories with little nutrition.

A piece of fruit, such as an apple, provides vitamins, minerals, and fiber as well as natural sugar.

If you notice that a particular food or ingredient seems to aggravate your child’s symptoms, try eliminating it from their diet to see if it makes a difference.

Hydrogenated and trans-fats

Other foods that may increase the risk of obesity and heart disease are hydrogenated and trans-fats. These are mostly artificially produced fats that appear in many processed and pre-made foods.

Examples include:

  • shortening
  • margarine
  • packaged snacks
  • processed foods
  • fast foods
  • some frozen pizzas

Fast food and processed foods also tend to be high in:

  • added sugar
  • added salt
  • calories
  • chemical additives and preservatives

These types of food have little or no nutritional value.

Here are some more tips that may help manage your child’s diet.

Establish a routine. Most children benefit from routine, and this can be especially helpful for a child with ADHD.

Where possible, schedule regular meal and snack times. Also, try not to let your child go more than a few hours without eating or they may be tempted to fill up with snacks and candies.

Avoid fast food restaurants and junk food aisles in the grocery store. Instead of keeping junk foods in your home, stock up on fruits and veggies.

Good options include:

  • cherry tomatoes
  • slices of carrot, cucumber, or celery
  • pieces of apple and cheese
  • plain yogurt mixed with berries

Avoid sudden changes. It can take time for a child to move away from junk food. If you make the switch gradually, they may notice that they start to feel better and enjoy the variety fresh foods can offer.

Find attractive foods. Aim for a variety of colors, textures, and flavors and encourage your child to help with the preparation and presentation.

Talk to a health professional. Your child’s doctor or dietitian can advise on healthy eating as well as the need for multivitamins and other supplements.

Set an example. Your child is more likely to want to eat healthily if they see you doing the same. Eating together can also make mealtimes more fun.

Healthy dietary habits begin in childhood and can last a lifetime, whether or not a child has been diagnosed with ADHD.

Research has not shown that any specific food can cause or cure ADHD. But, to keep a child healthy, it’s best to avoid too much sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats.

ADHD can be tough not only on the child but on parents and caregivers, too. Making healthy food choices can help keep you and your child fit and fueled to face any challenges.