Healthy Diet Tips for Kids with ADHD

by Marixie Ann Obsioma, MT, undergrad MD on June 29, 2022
Last updated on July 14, 2022

ADHD, which stands for Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), is one of the most well-known and most common neurodevelopmental disorders. It is often diagnosed in childhood and can last through adulthood. Nowadays, diagnosis of ADHD and similar neurodevelopmental disorders have become more and more common. It is important to note that this may be an effect of changing diets or different societal and cultural environments that we are currently in as well as people going in and getting diagnosed as mental health stigma is lessened. Neurodevelopmental disorders are just as real and valid as other physical conditions that are more commonly accepted by society. 

Healthy Diet Tips for Kids with ADHD

People diagnosed with ADHD are known to have difficulties with organizing or finishing tasks, paying attention to details, following instructions or conversations, fidgeting, and having difficulties staying still. (1)

Living with ADHD can be difficult but luckily, numerous studies have allowed for a better understanding of what to do or not do when living with the condition. One of these is modifying your child’s diet which has shown to have an effect on someone being able to more effectively manage the condition. (2)

The result of the aforementioned study actually coincides with studies made by the Mayo Clinic – that of which food does not cause ADHD but can worsen ADHD symptoms or cause behavioral patterns that are similar to signs of ADHD in children. (3)

The general advice regarding modifying your diet for ADHD of course is to talk to a doctor about your plans. As with any medical condition, it is best to consult with a medical professional first before undergoing drastic changes to one’s health. It is important as eliminating too many products, including healthy foods, may actually be counterproductive as you may inadvertently create a diet that is unable to meet one’s daily requirements and lacking in the necessary vitamins and nutrients thus making a more difficult situation. A professional can make sure that all dietary needs are appropriately met. 

Nonetheless, here’s a quick overview of what to include or exclude in the diet that you’re planning. Consider the things that you should include and the food that you should refrain from or totally remove from your diet.

Eat protein

Protein-rich foods such as lean beef, poultry, pork, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, soy, and low-fat dairy products. Protein is used by the brain to make neurotransmitters, the very same chemicals released by brain cells to communicate with each other. Eating protein can assist in improving concentration and is harder for the body to break down and thus making one feel more satiated. As such high-protein foods would be a great and easy addition to your ADHD diet.

Stop blood sugar spikes

One of the key dietary notes for people with ADHD is to make sure that the lower and limit their sugar consumption as much as possible. A study from the University of South California on nutrition has shown that overconsumption of sugar can cause hyperactive children to be more destructive and more restless. (4)

A separate study conducted at Yale University has indicated that overconsumption of sugar could make kids with ADHD more inattentive. (5)

They say that you are what you eat so instead of a sweet breakfast such as waffles or pancakes with syrup that can increase blood sugar levels, you can instead opt for oatmeal with milk or peanut butter on whole-grain bread. The sugars from this type of food are digested more slowly and can provide for a blood sugar release that is more consistent, and less likely to lead to a sugar crash.

It is important to note that if you’re a parent or guardian limiting your child’s intake of sugary foods, to also limit your own intake. There are plenty of substitutes such as a platter of colorful fruits or vegetables or freshly squeezed juice. 

Do note down and avoid the following when seen on a food label, these are all other commonly used names that all refer to sugar:

  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Corn syrup solids
  • Dehydrated cane juice
  • Dextrin
  • Dextrose
  • Maltodextrin
  • Malt syrup
  • Maltose
  • Molasses
  • Rice syrup
  • Saccharose
  • Sorghum
  • Sorghum Syrup
  • Sucrose

Consume omega 3s and fish oil

Omega-3 are essential fats commonly found in fish oil. It is important for normal brain function and is also popularly known to be the ultimate brain food. Unfortunately, our bodies cannot make such a key nutrient and thus we are forced to rely on consuming fish or supplements to receive our daily requirements.

The same conclusion was reached by Australian researchers after providing children with ADHD with Omega-3 supplements every day for four months. They also found that these kids also benefited by being more attentive, more obedient, less hostile, and with better spelling (6)

A 2009 study from Sweden concluded that 25 percent of children who had daily doses of Omega-3s had a large decrease in symptoms after three months, and by six months, better symptom management was experienced by almost 50 percent of participants.(7)

A study has found that eating less Omega-3s can increase the risk of developing ADHD by as much as 31 percent. Children that have been diagnosed with ADHD have been found to have lower blood levels of Omega 3s. Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University concluded that supplementing our diets with Omega-3s can consistently lessen hyperactivity. (8)

It is important to note that consuming too much fish can have a negative effect due to the trace amounts of Mercury commonly found in fish and seafood. 

Maintain iron levels to avoid iron deficiency

Iron is another key nutrient that a modified diet for ADHD has to account for. A study has shown that an increase in iron levels can assist in improving the symptoms felt by children with ADHD. (9)

As there are associated risks with having too much iron supplementation, it is just as important to make sure to consult with a doctor or dietician to make sure that the proper level and amount of iron is maintained.

Maintain zinc and magnesium levels

Zinc and Magnesium are two common minerals that have a significant role in controlling ADHD symptoms. They are essential in maintaining normal health. Magnesium is used to make neurotransmitters involved in attention and concentration concerns and has a calming effect on the brain while Zinc assists in regulating the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Studies in the effect of Zinc and Magnesium levels and their effect in managing ADHD symptoms are not as clear-cut as studies done on Omega-3 fatty acids and Iron and their effect in managing ADHD symptoms.

Try natural herbs

Natural herbs such as ginkgo, St John’s Wort, and ginseng have been recommended as helpful in managing ADHD symptoms. Unfortunately, there has not been plenty of research done with regards to their effectiveness.

However, a European study on hyperactivity and sleep problems found that a combination of valerian and lemon balm assisted in helping children with ADHD relax and reduce anxiety.

Cut back on chemicals

Several studies have all suggested that food additives that are artificially made can affect children without ADHD more hyperactive, and make hyperactive children worse.(10)

Unfortunately, with the technical jargon or use of different names to obscure the use or presence of key ingredients,  it can be difficult to fully ascertain or identify which food lacks chemicals. It then lies in governmental regulation to enforce pro-consumer laws that inform consumers of what exactly they are buying and eating. A good example of such regulation is from the European Union, which requires a warning label be put on food packaging that contains additives: “This food may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

Common and popular products such as Gatorade, cheese puffs, salty chips, junk foods, candies, and other processed foods are the prime culprits with regard to foods containing artificial food colors and preservatives. The easiest way to avoid chemicals and other artificial additives is to read the food ingredient labels. You’ll be surprised how easy it becomes to get acquainted with what ingredients on the label to avoid.  

It is important to remember that abstaining from chemicals and other artificial additives would not mean that you will also have to abstain from all the fun meals. There are plenty of choices that are organic or have as few chemicals as possible. Food such as bread, cereal, cookies, pizza, hamburgers, and steaks can all be made and enjoyed without putting any artificial additives.

TIP: Sweet cereals and soft drinks are common day-to-day food items that are artificially colored and flavored.

Watch out for food sensitivities

Research suggests that children with ADHD can develop food sensitivities to certain foods like dairy, wheat, and soy.

It is important to differentiate food sensitivity from food allergies. Determining food sensitivities can be done by removing a suspected food from daily consumption and observing their reaction.

The particular food sensitivities for a child with ADHD should be identified as soon as possible as it can have a great effect on managing the ADHD symptoms and avoiding potential flare-ups in their moods.

It is important to recognize that there is no set “Best” ADHD diet. No cookie-cutter diet that will work for everyone with ADHD. A good ADHD diet is a diet that conforms to the needs of the person with ADHD, taking into consideration their food sensitivities, food allergies, and even favorite food.

Avoid energy drinks

Try to avoid energy drinks, they are high in sugar. Energy drinks have grown in popularity among kids, especially among teens. Unfortunately, for kids with ADHD these drinks can bring ADHD symptoms due to high amounts of artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, caffeine, sugar, and other stimulants.  

It is absolutely important to note that energy drinks do not have a place in a healthy ADHD diet and as such should be highly discouraged.

Given that sodas and sweet drinks are very common nowadays and are easy to access sources of the same sugars and sweeteners that can have a significant negative impact on symptoms of a person with ADHD, it is important to undertake a  commitment of cutting out soda from the diet.  Too much sugar and caffeine intake both cause hyperactivity and lessens the ability to concentrate. A 2013 study has even found that 5-year-olds who drank soft drinks were more aggressive and socially withdrawn.

Avoid caffeinated drinks

Similar to energy drinks, it is important to make sure that kids with ADHD are warned of the possible detrimental effects that they can experience due to drinking caffeinated drinks. Coffee, specially the iced variants that can commonly be bought from coffee shops and even some variants of tea is popular and can be very enticing for kids resulting in mismanaging ADHD symptoms. Many popular Soft Drinks actually contain a fair amount of caffeine. Make sure you check the labels always.

Avoid frozen fruits and vegetables

Although it was recommended that nutritious food like a fruit or vegetable is key in a healthy ADHD diet, it is just as important to note that the same recommendation may not translate to frozen fruits and vegetables. These frozen items can contain artificial chemicals that can exacerbate ADHD symptoms and as such should be avoided. Don’t forget to check the label of the items and foodstuff that you intend to include in your diet.

Forget about cake mixes and frostings

Cake mix and frosting contain an exorbitant amount of sugar and artificial coloring that can easily lead to hyperactivity. It is rare for cakes to achieve the level of sweetness and color that they are known for through natural means. Most bakeshops are just as quick to use artificial sweeteners and coloring to make sure that their cakes get a leg up from the competition

This also applies to candies, which are just as loaded with sugar and artificial colors. Stay away! The temporary sugar rush is just not worth the difficulty they bring in terms of managing a child’s ADHD symptoms. 

It is difficult to live with neurodevelopmental disorders but there are certain steps that can be made to make it easier. Health and nutrition can assist in providing significant symptom relief. A consistent and healthy diet that caters to the particular needs of the patient can pay dividends in providing quality of life changes for people who live with ADHD.

Take note of the intake of essential nutrients such as Omega 3 and Iron which help with managing ADHD symptoms as it is just as important as avoiding artificial flavoring and coloring which can negatively impact someone with ADHD.

A quick summary of do’s and don’t for your ADHD diet is as follows:

  • Do Eat Protein
  • Do Stop Blood Sugar Spikes
  • Do Consume more Omega 3s and Fish Oil
  • Do Maintain Iron levels
  • Do Maintain Zinc and Magnesium Levels
  • Do Try Natural herbs
  • Don’t Consume Chemicals such as Artificial Coloring and Artificial Flavoring
  • Don’t Ignore Food Sensitivities
  • Don’t Consume Energy Drinks
  • Don’t Consume Caffeinated Drinks
  • Don’t Forget to Check the Labels even for Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
  • Don’t Eat Cake Mixes and Frostings

We hope that this small introduction to key concepts to pay attention to when creating your very own ADHD diet assists you in getting a basic grasp of what to eat and what not to eat. It simply cannot be understated though how important it is to still contact a medical professional and or a dietician if possible to help manage and guide the process of creating the ADHD diet that is right for you or for your loved one.

An ADHD diet for kids should not be considered the end-all-be-all solution. It is merely a component of a holistic and integral approach to treating living with ADHD.


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