Finding the right diet for a child with ADHD can be tough, especially with all the different advice out there. It’s important to know which foods can help improve focus and behavior, and which ones might make ADHD symptoms worse.
In this article, I’m going to share the best diet for kids with ADHD in 2024. We’ll cover foods that are good for brain health and those to avoid, making it easier for you to make the right food choices for your child’s needs.
Understanding the Connection Between ADHD and Diet
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder commonly diagnosed in childhood. It affects various aspects of a child’s behavior and cognitive abilities.
Children with ADHD often exhibit symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. These symptoms can significantly impact their daily lives, including their performance in school, their interactions with others, and their ability to follow routines and instructions. Children with ADHD may face challenges with executive functions, which include skills like working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-control. They might struggle to focus on tasks, organize activities, or manage their time effectively.
Diet and nutrition have been explored as potential factors in managing ADHD symptoms. The hypothesis is that certain foods or additives might exacerbate ADHD symptoms, while others could potentially alleviate them.
Research in this area is ongoing, but studies have suggested a link between diet and ADHD symptoms in children:
This study examines the impact of nutrition on cognitive abilities and social behavior in early childhood. It found that high protein diets positively influence children’s attention at this age.
In a similar fashion, this study looked at the link between celiac disease and ADHD. It suggests that untreated celiac disease with neurological symptoms like inattention may predispose children to ADHD-like behavior, which could be alleviated by a gluten-free diet.
Another study examined the role of various nutrients and diet quality in ADHD management. It suggests potential benefits of minerals and probiotics on ADHD symptoms and observes inverse associations between adherence to healthy diets and ADHD symptoms. The few-foods diet shows promise in improving behavior and cognitive functioning in children with ADHD.
In my practice, I have witnessed firsthand the positive impact that removing certain inflammatory foods can have on managing ADHD symptoms. When children with ADHD eliminate foods known to cause inflammation, there’s a noticeable improvement in their ADHD symptoms.
Benefits of a Balanced Diet for Children with ADHD
A balanced diet offers numerous specific benefits to children with ADHD, primarily by providing essential nutrients that support brain health and function.
Eat lots of whole fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as grass-fed and wild-caught protein sources, and healthy fats. Put special focus on the following:
Nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods like fatty fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts, are crucial for brain development and can significantly improve focus and cognitive processing.
Incorporating foods rich in zinc, magnesium, and iron – like leafy greens, nuts, and lean meats – can also enhance attention and memory skills. These minerals are vital for neurotransmitter function and overall brain health.
Complex carbohydrates from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables provide steady energy, which helps maintain consistent blood sugar levels, reducing hyperactivity and impulsivity.
A diet that includes these nutrient-rich foods can lead to noticeable improvements in the symptoms of ADHD, helping children to concentrate better, stay calmer, and manage their emotions more effectively.
Nutritional Tips and Snack Ideas for ADHD Kids
Ensuring that a child with ADHD maintains a balanced diet requires a bit of planning but can be quite manageable with some practical strategies.
Start by incorporating a variety of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains into their meals, ensuring they get the essential nutrients for brain health.
For snacks, focus on simple, nutritious options that are easy to prepare.
A handful of mixed nuts, carrot sticks with hummus, or slices of apple with almond butter are great choices that provide a blend of proteins, healthy fats, and fibers.
Dairy-free yogurt topped with fresh berries and a sprinkle of chia seeds can also be a tasty, nutrient-packed snack.
Preparing these snacks in advance and having them readily available can make it easier to offer healthy options throughout the day.
Remember, consistency is key, so try to maintain regular meal and snack times.
Encouraging hydration with water or smoothies instead of sugary drinks is also important for overall health and managing ADHD symptoms.
Foods that Improve Symptoms of ADHD
Cultural aspects strongly influence how people see ADHD and seek help. While some societies may stigmatize ADHD, others might view it through a more accepting lens. Understanding these cultural nuances is essential for healthcare professionals to provide sensitive and effective support, considering the diverse ways ADHD is perceived and managed across different communities.
The Impact on Academic Performance
One of the most noticeable effects of ADHD is its impact on academic performance. Children with ADHD often struggle with tasks requiring continued attention and organization, leading to academic underachievement. Addressing these challenges requires a collaborative effort between educators, parents, and healthcare professionals to implement tailored strategies that accommodate the unique learning needs of children with ADHD.
Innovations in ADHD Treatment
Certain foods have been identified as particularly beneficial for improving symptoms of ADHD:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Found in oily fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel, as well as in flaxseeds and walnuts, omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for brain health. They are integral to the development and functioning of the brain and nervous system. Studies suggest that omega-3s can improve attention, reduce hyperactivity, and enhance cognitive function in children with ADHD.
Protein: Foods rich in protein, such as lean meats, eggs, beans, and nuts, are essential for neurotransmitter function. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that transmit signals between nerve cells. Adequate protein intake can help balance these chemicals, leading to improved attention and reduced impulsivity.
Complex Carbohydrates: Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables provide complex carbohydrates that release glucose slowly into the bloodstream. This gradual release helps maintain steady energy levels and concentration, preventing the spikes and crashes often experienced with high-sugar foods.
Iron-Rich Foods: Iron is a critical nutrient for cognitive development and function. Iron deficiency has been linked to ADHD symptoms. Foods like red meat, poultry, and beans can boost iron levels, potentially improving attention and focus.
Zinc and Magnesium: These minerals, found in nuts, seeds, whole grains, and leafy greens, play a role in dopamine regulation, a neurotransmitter involved in focus and attention. Adequate levels of zinc and magnesium have been associated with reduced ADHD symptoms.
Vitamin B6: This vitamin, present in foods like bananas, spinach, and poultry, is important for neurotransmitter production, including serotonin, which regulates mood and behavior. Ensuring sufficient Vitamin B6 intake can support overall brain health and mitigate ADHD symptoms.
5 Foods that Worsen Symptoms of ADHD
When managing ADHD, it’s not just about what to include in your diet, but also what to avoid.
Gluten, dairy, and soy often top this list due to their inflammatory properties that can impact brain function and mood. Artificial flavors and colors, prevalent in many processed foods, have also been linked to increased hyperactivity and attention issues in some children with ADHD.
Excessive sugar consumption is another major concern, as it can lead to spikes and crashes in energy levels, exacerbating symptoms of inattention and impulsivity.
In the section that follows, I explain each of these inflammatory foods in detail.
#1 – Gluten
Gluten is the first food I recommend children with ADHD cut out of their diets. In fact, gluten is so inflammatory that I suggest everyone (even those without ADHD or a known gluten intolerance) stop eating it.
Gluten is harmful, because it triggers increased intestinal permeability in EVERYONE, even those who don’t show an allergic response to it.
Intestinal permeability refers to the breakdown of the intestinal walls. When functioning properly, the walls of the intestines form a barrier, allowing water and nutrients to pass through but blocking other things from entering the bloodstream.
When a person has increased intestinal permeability, that can lead to leaky gut. Leaky gut allows toxins and other harmful substances to enter the bloodstream that aren’t supposed to be there, leading to an inflammatory response in the body. This inflammation can make ADHD symptoms significantly worse.
Inflammation isn’t the only issue with gluten, though. Gluten also has the potential to create opiate-like effects in some individuals.
In individuals who have gut inflammation, which is very common in kids with ADHD, the enzymes in their guts are not fully breaking down gluten. What happens as a result are compounds called gluteomorphins.
The protein structure of gluteomorphins is similar to that of morphine. Gluteomorphins are absorbed into the bloodstream, cross the blood brain barrier, and then bind to opiate receptors in the brain and gastrointestinal tract.
#2 – Dairy
Another food I recommend families remove is dairy.
I suggest families cut out dairy for the same reasons as they cut out gluten. Dairy products, like gluten, are inflammatory and create opioid-like responses in the brain. The opioid-like protein in dairy is called casomorphin.
#3 – Soy
Soy is the third food children with ADHD should cut from their diets.
There are a few primary reasons for this. First of all, approximately 95% of soy products come from genetically modified crops (GMOs). GMOs damage the digestive system and kill off the good bacteria in your gut.
The over-production of soy is also a problem. Soy is among the largest United States farm commodities. It’s heavily processed, has a high yield, and often contains glyphosate (pesticide) residue. Because of its mass production, it is also snuck into a variety of foods at an alarming rate.
Another reason I suggest families of children with ADHD remove soy is because soy is an endocrine disruptor. When eaten in excess, it can have adverse effects on the balance of hormones in your body. It also contains isoflavones, which act like estrogen in the body. Since many breast cancers need estrogen to grow, eating an excess of soy could increase the risk of breast cancer.
#4 – Excessive Sugar
Along with gluten, dairy, and soy, you also want to cut back on sugar.
Many parents overlook the importance of blood sugar management because they think of it in connection with diabetes, not ADHD. But blood sugar management is important for all of us, whether we have diabetes or not.
Unstable blood sugar contributes to a whole host of problems like difficulty listening, inability to focus or stay on task, being easily distracted, being quick to get frustrated and sometimes hard to calm down, having unexpected anger and/or lashing out, and being unable to sit still.
The ADHD symptoms many children battle can be tied directly to fluctuating blood sugar.
The American Heart Association recommends kids aged 2 – 18 should have less than 25 grams or six teaspoons of ADDED sugar daily. However, in my experience working with children with ADHD, this amount should be cut in half.
Parents should aim to have less than 12 grams of sugar or three teaspoons of ADDED sugar daily. This does not include natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables.
#5 – Artificial Flavors and Colors
Did you know there are chemicals allowed into food in the states that are banned either partially or entirely in other countries?
Some of these banned chemicals are artificial colors like red #40, yellow #6, and yellow #5.
ADDitude magazine released an updated article about the effects of artificial colors on ADHD and said this: “Food additives adversely affect a population of children with ADHD.”
They went on to share two studies from the United Kingdom that suggest food additives cause harm to children with ADHD.
“In 2004, one studied healthy preschoolers after giving them either a placebo or 20 milligrams of artificial dye mix plus sodium benzoate. They found that, when the children received the actual dye and sodium benzoate, they had a significant increase in hyperactivity.”
Here’s what they found in the second study: “In 2007, a research team led by UK researcher Donna McCann studied a group of 3-year-olds and 8- or 9-year-olds. It found that both hyperactive children and non-hyperactive children experienced increased hyperactivity scores when given artificial food colors and additives, suggesting that the dyes are a general public health concern.’”
In this study, it wasn’t only children with ADHD who were more hyperactive after eating artificial colors. It was neurotypical children as well.
What that tells me is that EVERYONE is negatively affected by artificial colors. They are bad for all of us.
The Elimination Diet for Managing ADHD Symptoms
An elimination diet is a strategy increasingly used to manage ADHD symptoms by pinpointing specific foods that may exacerbate these symptoms.
The concept involves systematically removing potential trigger foods from the diet and then reintroducing them one at a time to observe any changes in behavior. This method helps identify individual sensitivities or intolerances that might not be apparent otherwise.
NOTE: I recommend most families NOT reintroduce the 5 foods listed above, as these are inflammatory and are not good for anyone. Instead, use the elimination diet if you suspect other foods might be triggering inflammation in your child.
How It Works:
Elimination Phase: Initially, common trigger foods are removed from the diet for a set period, typically a few weeks to a couple of months.
Reintroduction Phase: Gradually, these foods can be reintroduced one at a time. The child’s response to each reintroduced food is closely monitored to identify any changes in ADHD symptoms.
Here is a blog post with more information.
The effectiveness of an elimination diet in managing ADHD symptoms has been supported by various studies and success stories. For example, research has shown that some children with ADHD may have undiagnosed food sensitivities that, when addressed, can lead to significant improvements in symptoms. Parents often report noticeable changes in ADHD symptoms when certain foods are removed from their child’s diet.
However, it’s important to approach an elimination diet carefully and ideally under the guidance of a healthcare professional, such as a dietitian or doctor, to ensure that the child’s nutritional needs are met and to accurately interpret the effects of dietary changes.
Drawbacks of Making Dietary Changes
While making significant changes to a child’s diet, especially in managing ADHD symptoms, can be beneficial, it’s important to be aware of potential drawbacks.
Physical Reactions: Sudden dietary changes can sometimes lead to physical reactions. For instance, removing sugar abruptly can cause withdrawal symptoms like headaches, fatigue, or irritability. In cases where a child’s diet is heavily reliant on foods being eliminated, such as gluten or dairy, their body might initially react to this change and go through a sort of detox period where they may experience discomfort.
Emotional Responses: Dietary changes can also affect a child’s emotional state. Food can be a source of comfort, and removing favorite foods might lead to feelings of frustration or deprivation.
Nutritional Balance: Removing major food groups from a child’s diet, such as dairy or gluten, requires careful planning to ensure they still receive all the necessary nutrients for their growth and development. There’s a risk of nutritional deficiencies if the diet isn’t well-balanced.
Cost and Accessibility: Specialized diets can sometimes be more expensive or require access to specific food stores, which might not be feasible for all families. This can add financial strain and limit the variety of available food options. If you don’t have access to high quality grocery stores in your area, I recommend Thrive Market online.
Time and Effort: Preparing specialized meals can be time-consuming, especially for families with a busy schedule. This might involve reading labels more carefully, cooking from scratch, or finding suitable food alternatives, which requires a significant time commitment.
Social Implications: Dietary changes can also impact a child’s social experiences, such as feeling different during school lunches or social events. It’s crucial to prepare them for these situations and find ways to make their diet feel less restrictive in social settings.
Given these potential challenges, it’s important for families to approach dietary changes thoughtfully and, where possible, seek guidance from a healthcare professional to ensure these changes are made safely and effectively.
My team and I are experts at implementing these changes with families. It’s what we do day in and day out, so we can help you overcome these challenges.
If you haven’t yet, check out my free ADHD fast class and then book a free call with my team today to get started!