ADHD Diet For Kids: Foods To Eat And Foods To Avoid

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Attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder in children. A few studies state that certain foods and nutrients may impact a child’s mood and self-control. A diet for kids with ADHD could consist of these food items and nutrients.

In general, children with ADHD should consume a healthy, well-balanced diet that supports their behavior and aids their proper growth and development. Although adding these foods has not proven to cure ADHD, it could be beneficial.

We have included a few tips on planning such nutritious diets for children with ADHD in this post. We have also included a list of foods to include and avoid.

Foods To Include In The ADHD Diet

While there isn’t a specific food that can cure or alleviate ADHD symptoms, ADHD is associated with certain diets. According to some studies, a western-style diet high in fat and refined sugar is associated with an increased risk of ADHD, while a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seafood and olive oil has an inverse relation with ADHD. Hence, parents should focus on making the child’s daily diet nutritious.

A well-balanced ADHD diet should contain various healthy foods from different food groups and provide the following nutrients.

1. Complex carbohydrates

Complex carbs are sugars that the body digests slowly, causing a steady release of glucose (a simple sugar) into the bloodstream. A steady release of glucose is essential for hunger and appetite regulation and energy metabolism. Whole grains and cereals, legumes, fruits, and starchy vegetables are good sources of complex carbohydrates. So, add these foods to your child’s diet in moderation and as a part of a healthy and wholesome diet.

2. Lean protein

Protein is the building block of life and helps regulate many functions in the body, from cell regeneration to enzyme production. Add healthy sources of protein, such as beans, legumes, tofu, low-fat dairy, egg whites, chicken, fish, and nuts, to your child’s daily diet for muscle growth. Children between four and 14 years require 19 to 46 grams of protein per day.

3. Healthy fats

Children between four to 14 years of age should receive 25 to 35 percent of their total daily energy from fats. Of these, less than ten percent should come from saturated fats and the remaining from unsaturated fats. Fats are essential for humans for several reasons, including aiding the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.

So, feed unsaturated fats, such as MUFA and PUFA, in the right proportions to a child. And ensure you include omega-3 fatty acids (PUFA), which may reduce symptoms of ADHD. Some of the good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include

  • Fatty fish (tuna and salmon)
  • Nuts, such as walnuts
  • Seeds, such as chia and flax seeds

4. Vitamins and minerals

Low zinc and iron levels are often associated with ADHD. However, there’s no concrete evidence that deficiency of any vitamin or minerals causes ADHD. Nevertheless, some studies indicate that micronutrient supplementation may improve certain symptoms of ADHD, such as inattention. Additionally, in general, consuming micronutrients is necessary for overall health and well-being.

Thus, ensure you give your child all the vital micronutrients in the right amounts. S Some micronutrients that are crucial during childhood and the teenage years include vitamin D, vitamin B6, calcium, zinc, iron, and magnesium. Fruits, dried fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, seafood, seeds, and nuts can offer you these and several more micronutrients in abundance. So, ensure you feed your child a variety of foods.

Now that you know the foods you should add to your child’s diet, know the foods that you should avoid or limit.

Foods To Limit Or Avoid

ADHD cannot be cured by eliminating foods from the diet. However, some studies and anecdotal evidence demonstrate that removing certain unhealthy foods from the diet (elimination diet) may improve some symptoms of ADHD. Eliminating some of the following foods and food ingredients might alleviate a child’s ADHD symptoms.

1. Artificial food colors and dyes

Processed and packaged foods often contain artificial food colorings and dyes. These additives make the food look colorful and attractive, but they may exacerbate ADHD symptoms. The exact mechanism of how these chemical-based colors and dyes affect ADHD is unknown. Yet, keeping the intake of foods containing artificial colors and dyes at a minimum is important for the health of every child.

2. Refined sugar

Some parents believe that high sugar consumption causes hyperactivity in children, especially those with ADHD. However, experts state that hyperactivity and high sugar intake aren’t correlated. Yet, in general, a high sugar diet isn’t good for anyone, let alone children.

Research shows that high sugar intake in childhood exposes a child to chronic health issues, such as obesity, tooth decay, and type-2 diabetes. Hence, limiting your child’s sugar intake is a wise decision, even if there is not directly affect behavior.

3. Caffeine

Caffeine is a natural stimulant that can adversely affect the central nervous system and heart when consumed in large amounts. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises against the use of caffeine or caffeinated beverages, such as soft drinks, for children under five years of age. Although caffeine has shown effectiveness in improving functioning and reducing hyperactivity, it can amplify the effect of ADHD medications, and its excessive intake can have side effects, such as appetite suppression and insomnia, which can worsen ADHD symptoms. Thus, all children should avoid caffeine and caffeinated products. As for the use of caffeine for improving ADHD symptoms, it’s a matter one should discuss with a pediatrician.

4. Allergens

Some children with ADHD may have sensitivity or intolerance to specific foods, such as salicylate-containing foods (tomato and grapes) and common allergens such as milk, soy, seafood, wheat, and peanuts. A cross-sectional study conducted on school children concluded that “early food allergy is associated with ADHD.”

Thus, eliminating foods that cause sensitivity may help. However, However, this needs to be done with close pediatric guidance as the intervention may not be helpful for children with ADHD who aren’t allergic or sensitive to foods.

Tips To Provide A Healthy ADHD Diet For Children

Managing a child with ADHD can be overwhelming, and many parents struggle to organize and plan their child’s diet. Here are some useful tips that may help you plan their diet and encourage healthy eating in children with ADHD.

  1. Follow a routine: Children with ADHD struggle with planning, organizing, and scheduling activities. Therefore, following a routine is a good way to make them more organized. You could try serving meals at the same time daily. In addition, ensure the meals are colorful and flavorful so that children look forward to eating.
  1. Never skip meals: Skipping meals can cause a dip in energy levels and trigger overeating, especially junk foods such as chips and cookies. So, a child must eat well-balanced meals at regular intervals. When you plan and prepare these meals, involve your child so that they may understand and appreciate each food’s versatility and importance.
  1. Serve your child a well-balanced diet. Well-balanced meals are those that contain an abundance of healthy foods from different food groups. For instance, whole grain cereals, fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and low-fat dairy products are a source of macro and micronutrients that children need to grow and develop. So, pay attention to what your child is eating and how you can make it wholesome.
  1. Avoid ultra-processed foods: Ultra-processed foods are high in fat and sugar. They may also contain additives, such as artificial food colors, and preservatives, which may have an impact on your child’s behavior. So, limit your child’s intake of processed foods and encourage them to eat healthy foods. Instead, offer them healthy snacks that are filling. Here are some healthy options that you can provide to your child:
    • Fresh seasonal fruits, such as banana, apple, papaya, dragon fruit, plum, peach, and nectarines
    • Low-fat, unsweetened yogurt with fruits, homemade smoothies, and shakes
    • Dried fruit with no added sugar
    • Air-popped, saltless popcorn
    • Baked vegetables
    • Whole-grain chips
    • Roasted chickpeas
    • Seeds and nuts trail mix
    • High-fiber cereals with dried fruits and nuts
    • Boiled/steamed/sauteed veggies with homemade dips, such as hummus and baba ghanoush

Whatever healthy snacks you plan to feed your child, ensure you provide them with two to three healthy snack options and let them decide what they want to eat. Then, keep these preferred foods in easy access so that your child can eat them whenever they are hungry.

  1. Be a role model for your child: Children learn from example. So, display responsible eating behavior to your child and let them follow in your footsteps. While eating at home or dining in a restaurant, pick healthy foods, such as lean meat, fish, veggies, and whole grains. Eat together as much as possible to let them experience healthy home-cooked food – sharing meals will also help you spend quality time together.
  1. Train your child to read food labels: Many store-bought products contain ingredients that aren’t healthy for children. Hence, reading food labels is vital to make informed choices. So, let your child accompany you during grocery shopping and show them the right way to read and depict food labels. Teach them to avoid products containing refined grains, sugar, hydrogenated and trans fats, high amounts of sodium, and additives, such as artificial food colors or dyes and preservatives.
  1. Consult a diet expert. A certified nutritionist (dietician) who works predominantly with ADHD patients can help you develop a customized diet plan for your child. In addition, they can help a child with ADHD recognize, understand, and rectify their dietary issues. Furthermore, they can also guide you regarding dietary or nutritional supplement use for your child, if necessary.

While adding certain nutritious and well-balanced meals to the diet of ADHD kids has not proven to cure ADHD, it may help improve their mood and promote their proper growth and development. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seafood, and other foods that contain all the required nutrients, such as carbs, vitamins, lean protein, minerals, and healthy fats, should be included in an ADHD diet for kids. However, ensure your child eats various healthful meals in moderation and avoids excessive consumption of refined sugar, caffeine, unhealthy fats, or salt. In addition, following a routine and training your child to read food labels could help.

Key Pointers

  • Food cannot cure or cause ADHD.
  • Studies show that a diet with high sugar and fat increases its risk, while a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains lowers it.
  • An ADHD diet should contain complex carbohydrates, lean protein, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals.
  • Avoid foods with artificial colors, refined sugar, caffeine, and allergens.
  • If needed, consult a nutrition expert for customized diet plans.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
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    https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/carbohydrates.
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    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16777670/
  9. Amelia Villagomez and Ujjwal Ramtekkar. (2014). Iron, Magnesium, Vitamin D, and Zinc Deficiencies in Children Presenting with Symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4928738/
  10. Julia J Rucklidge et al. (2017). Vitamin-mineral treatment improves aggression and emotional regulation in children with ADHD: a fully blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled trial.
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Dr. Jessica Madden

(MD, FAAP, IBCLC)
Jessica Madden is a pediatrician, neonatologist, lactation consultant, and mother of four, who has been taking care of newborns since 2001. She works as a neonatologist in the NICU at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, and founded Primrose Newborn Care, a newborn medicine and “4th trimester” home-visiting and telemedicine practice, in 2018.  Dr. Madden is a Fellow... more

Swati Patwal

Swati Patwal is a clinical nutritionist and toddler mom with over eight years of experience in diverse fields of nutrition. She started her career as a CSR project coordinator for a healthy eating and active lifestyle project catering to school children. Then she worked as a nutrition faculty and clinical nutrition coach in different organizations. Her interest in scientific writing... more