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  • Denise Scott


Have you ever observed your child’s behavior change after eating certain foods? I had a child who was very sensitive to small blood sugar changes. He would bounce off the walls after a soda, then crash and fall apart when that sugar in his system plummeted. In practice, I had many parents state similar observations, with behavior changes noted after a sugar load, food dyes, fried foods, etc.

Children with ADHD can have endless energy and be a challenge to parent.

For a child with attention deficit disorder (ADD), or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the behavior reactions to food can be even greater. Parenting a child with ADHD (from here on, ADHD will refer to both ADD and ADHD) is challenging, and many look for alternatives to medication. Medication is expensive, has side effects, and labels a child. There is a place for medication and therapy as treatment, but that is not necessarily the starting point. It is well worth attempting dietary changes first or in addition to medicine.

The Statistics:

  • The estimated number of children ages 3-17 in the US ever diagnosed with ADD/ADHD is roughly 6 million or about 11%. The worldwide prevalence is about 5%.

  • Boys are about three times more likely to be diagnosed than girls.

  • Numbers have risen sharply in the past two decades.

  • Children with ADHD often have other disorders, up to 60%. These include behavior or conduct disorders (the most common), sleep disorders, learning disabilities, anxiety, and depression.

  • About 75% receive treatment - either medication, behavior therapy, or both.

  • Symptoms may first appear between ages 3-6, but most children aren’t diagnosed until age 7 or older.

  • Adults are affected too - about 4%.

The Role of Diet:

There is no evidence that foods cause ADHD, but some foods in some people can exacerbate symptoms; other foods may help symptoms. Each individual is different, so the best advice is for a parent to observe their child since they know their child best. No one ADHD diet fits all. The aim is to incorporate a diet that helps the brain work and focus better.

Dietary therapy consists of 3 categories:

  1. Foods to eat

  2. Foods to eliminate

  3. Nutrients to supplement

Foods to Eat:

  1. Protein - good sources include beans, meat, eggs, cheese, nuts and nut butter, and seafood. Incorporate protein into each meal and snack.

  2. Complex carbohydrates - vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and legumes.

Examples of complex carbohydrates from whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and legumes which help avoid blood sugar fluctuations.

3. Omega-3 fatty acids, in cold-water fish, like salmon and tuna, walnuts, olive, and canola oils.

Great dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

Foods to Avoid/Eliminate:

  1. Simple carbohydrates, that is, sugar - candy, corn syrup, white rice, white bread, and pasta made from refined flour.

Simple carbohydrates are primarily sugar and lead to fluctuating blood sugar levels which children can be sensitive to.

2. Food additives such as food dyes, MSG, aspartame, and nitrites. (The American Academy of Pediatrics supports this as a reasonable approach).

3. Caffeine

Nutritional Supplements:

  1. Vitamins - some experts recommend a daily vitamin with iron, while others recommend getting nutrients from food. There is a correlation between ADHD and low iron, so it may be worth checking iron and ferritin levels to see if a supplement is indicated. High doses of any vitamin are NOT recommended for children and can be dangerous. For children who are picky eaters, a children’s multivitamin with iron is a good idea.

  2. Omega-3 fatty acids - more and more research points to this essential fatty acid as beneficial for the brain and promoted as a component of ADHD treatment. The best sources are fatty fish. For children who don’t eat fish, it can be worth supplementing. The dietary recommendation is a low-mercury, cold-water fish serving twice a week. An optimal supplement dosage for children is unknown; a supplement with EPA and DHA, made from fish body oil (not fish liver oil, cod liver oil, or flaxseed oil), is best with at least 500-1000 mg of EPA.

Incorporating diet into ADHD treatment can give families a more personalized approach to treatment. This can be done in addition to medication or as a first step to treatment.

Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder organization, or CHADD, has a cookbook for those with ADHD: “Cookbook for Busy Minds: Simple, Easy, and Healthy Meals to Feed Your Brain.”

It can be downloaded from their website @

To summarize, food does not cause ADHD, nor is it considered the only treatment. Nutrition may play a role as an adjunct to therapy and help some individuals by improving the quality of their diet and avoiding foods that can worsen symptoms. Supplements are best discussed with your doctor. A healthy diet is good for everyone and has no side effects!

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