Parenting

Best ADHD Diet for Kids: What to Eat & Avoid

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This article is not a substitute for individual medical advice. Please consult with a professional to determine whether or not a specific diet or dietary change is correct for your child, as well as how to implement these changes and support overall nutritional needs.

Medically supervised diets and other changes to one's diet can support the treatment of a number of different conditions and disorders, including Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD is a common condition that affects people of all ages, and it is said to impact around 11% of school-aged children in the United States population.

It's been a long-standing hypothesis that food and common food additives might affect ADHD symptoms. Research on nutrition and ADHD throughout the decades has given us some clarification on what exactly those foods and food additives are, how effective specific dietary changes might be, when or how to use them, and more. So, what's the best ADHD diet for kids? 

What's the Best ADHD Diet?

There is no known singular "ADHD diet." Various diets or dietary changes can be used to aid the treatment of ADHD. Here are some of the things we know:

  • Nutrition and an overall balanced diet are important for every child, including those with ADHD. However, food is not known to cause ADHD.
  • Sometimes, dietary changes can help with ADHD symptoms. These do not need to be extreme or limiting, especially not in every case, and sometimes, it can be a matter of adding certain foods or supplements rather than taking things away to support a healthy diet. Dietary changes can be useful alongside other components of care and symptom management, such as behavioral therapy, parental interventions and tools, games, and more. 
  • Certain nutrient deficiencies are more common in kids who live with ADHD. You may want to discuss this as a possibility with your child's primary care physician. They will be able to send your child for testing to ensure that they don't have any nutrient deficiencies. Nutrient deficiencies are often fixed easily, but they can have detrimental effects on mood, physical health, and more if they aren't addressed. 
  • Kids with ADHD are sometimes more likely to face challenges such as a suppressed appetite (due to medication) or picky eating. Sensory processing disorder and eating disorders, like Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), may also be of concern. If needed, these concerns should be addressed and taken into consideration. 

Some research also supports that special diets, such as the oligoantigenic diet, can lead to symptom reduction, but further research is likely needed. Dietary changes made to reduce ADHD symptoms or enhance the management of symptoms are typically most effective when used alongside other mechanisms of treatment and support, such as parental interventions, behavioral therapy, and more.

Foods to Avoid 

As far as foods that may exacerbate ADHD symptoms go, what do we know? Here are some foods that you may choose to avoid for the purpose of ADHD management: 

  • Artificial colors/artificial coloring. Artificial food dyes and their relation to ADHD and/or ADHD-adjacent symptoms (such as hyperactivity symptoms) have been studied for decades. The conclusion researchers have come to is that artificial food coloring doesn't cause ADHD, but it can have a small impact on a small set of children and their behavior. When considering removing food dye, it’s important to take into consideration if this restriction will lead to greater challenges in your child’s daily life, such as social activities.
  • Added sugar. Sugar doesn't cause ADHD, but it may be something to be mindful of. Foods and drinks that are high in added sugar can cause blood sugar to spike and crash, which can impact mood and behavior. Balancing meals and adding protein when sugar is consumed can help, as can avoiding excessive sugar consumption.
  • Foods your child is sensitive to. If your child has a food sensitivity, consuming the foods they are sensitive to may increase their ADHD symptoms. ADHD symptoms can even be what leads a parent to discover that their child might have a food sensitivity. Once you discover which foods a child is sensitive to (this will typically be done via an elimination diet), you want to avoid them. 
  • Some food additives. As is the case with artificial colors and sugar, food additives don't cause ADHD directly, but some food additives have the potential to impact or worsen symptoms. The main additive you may want to avoid is a preservative called sodium benzoate, which is linked to hyperactivity. 

Many dietitians say that it's not all about cutting foods out, so long as allergens or foods that a child is sensitive or intolerant* to, are avoided. In many cases, it's about well-rounded nutrition.

You want your child to have a good relationship with food, and all in all, it's essential that a child has a balanced diet. A healthy diet improves overall wellbeing and supports symptom management in a variety of conditions, including ADHD.

Some foods that can be very important to add for kids with ADHD, which you might want to place special emphasis on to balance a child's diet or mitigate any foods that you have had to take out of their diet, include but are not limited to high-quality protein and foods with omega-3 fatty acids

*Please note that sensitivities and intolerances differ from allergies. 

Nutritional Supplements for ADHD

We know of various nutritional supplements that can help with ADHD in kids and adults. Here are some of the most common and well-researched nutritional supplements for ADHD: 

  • Omega 3 supplements. Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for brain development and function. Accordingly, they are one of the most widely recommended and research-supported supplements for people who live with ADHD. Although the research is still limited in this area, it is possible that they may have some benefit.
  • Iron. Iron deficiency can increase the severity of ADHD symptoms. If your child has an iron deficiency, it is vital to treat it. This can be done through oral supplements, or it can be done via IV treatments in some cases. IV treatments are typically used if oral supplements are too harsh on the G.I. system. Some oral supplements containing iron may be easier on the G.I. system than others. Often, it's also relatively easy to increase iron in the diet naturally by consuming leafy greens, fortified foods, and some meats. 
  • Magnesium. Magnesium may help with cognitive function, and it is a relatively common nutrient deficiency seen in kids who live with ADHD. 
  • Vitamin D. Studies show that vitamin D can support mental health and improved behavior in children who live with ADHD.
  • Ginkgo biloba. Studies show that this can be a complementary part of treatment for ADHD.

Multivitamins can be helpful in making sure that your child gets all of the vitamins and minerals they need. Before adding a new supplement into your child's routine, make sure to consult with their doctor to see if that supplement is appropriate for your child. If applicable, ask if there are any potential medication reactions that could occur with the supplement. 

Elimination Diets

We spoke a little bit about how elimination diets can help you figure out if your child does or does not have a food sensitivity that may interfere with their ADHD symptoms or worsen their symptoms. But, what exactly is an elimination diet, and what is the purpose of one? 

The definition of an elimination diet is "an investigational short-term or possible lifelong eating plan that omits one or more foods suspected or known to cause an adverse food reaction or allergic response." In practice, what that looks like is subtracting either one food or a set of foods from your diet for a period of time - typically, a few weeks.

Then, you add those foods back into your diet one by one to see which of those foods cause an unfavorable reaction or response. The purpose of an elimination diet for ADHD is to find out which foods worsen your or your child's ADHD symptoms (and those that do not) by the process of elimination.

That way, you will be able to identify the specific foods that don't work for you. Sometimes, people eliminate a large group of foods at once and add each back slowly and one at a time, whereas others find it easier to eliminate single foods one at a time. For children, it may be easier to eliminate one food or a small group of foods at a time. 

As with other dietary changes, it's important that this process is supervised by a dietician, often in conjunction with one or more other medical professionals, to ensure that you or your child does not suffer any potential negative consequences, like nutrient deficiencies.

They can also help you find meals and snacks to make that fit the restrictions imposed by an elimination diet. Elimination diets aren't 100% risk-free, but they can be incredibly useful and even life-changing if they are done correctly. One study found that a significant percentage of kids who were assigned to five weeks of a restricted elimination diet showed improvements in symptoms based on the ADHD rating scale (ARS).

Conclusion 

Food is an influential, yet frequently overlooked, part of ADHD care. A healthy diet makes a difference, and certain dietary changes can support symptom management in those with ADHD, particularly in conjunction with other forms of treatment, like therapy, games created to assist the reduction of ADHD symptoms, and more.

As with many other things in life, dietary choices are personal decisions. Even if two people have the same condition - in this case, ADHD - it does not necessarily mean that the same dietary changes will be right for everyone. Speak with a professional to determine the right choices for your child and family. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is a good lunch for a child with ADHD?

The answer to this question depends largely on your child's likes and dislikes, age, overall nutritional needs, and what specific restrictions they follow due to ADHD or other concerns. Here are two examples of lunches that might work for a child with ADHD:

  • A sandwich with a protein source (such as turkey or chicken), fat (avocado, mayonnaise, hummus), and vegetables, alongside sides such as fruit, nuts, and a beverage. 
  • A bento box style meal with protein sources (cubed meats, tofu, beans, etc), fruits and veggies, a source of carbohydrates (rice, pretzels, etc.), a drink (water, etc.), and a treat. If your child has a special diet, you may be able to find recipes for suitable treats so that they do not miss out.

Have a picky or selective eater? Find more ideas here.

Does milk affect ADHD?

There are conflicting opinions on whether or not milk affects ADHD. In kids who are sensitive to dairy, it's smart to avoid it. 

Is ADHD affected by diet?

ADHD can most certainly be affected by diet. If a child lacks certain nutrients, has a diet that is not balanced, or is consuming a food that they are sensitive to, it can heighten symptoms. Finding out what works for you may include some level of trial and error, and that is okay. Nutritional needs can also vary based on a wide range of factors, and they may change over time.