Nutrition for kids with ADHD
ADHD impacts about 10% of U.S. children. Healthcare providers commonly treat ADHD with medication and behavioral therapy, but proper nutrition also can improve a child’s success in school and at home.

By: Body - Performance Nutrition - 11/15/2018

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) impacts about 10% of children in the U.S. between the ages of 4 and 17 years old.  Healthcare providers commonly treat ADHD with medication and behavioral therapy, but proper nutrition can improve a child's success in school and at home too.

Children with ADHD struggle with inattention, hyperactivity, and/or impulsivity.  Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with the condition, and it's more common in teenagers (12–17 years old).  The cause of ADHD is unknown, but it's likely rooted in a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Nutrient-dense foods boost the overall health of kids, but especially those with ADHD.  Children with ADHD often suffer from  poor nutrition because they crave foods high in sugar and white flour.  However, these food lack the nutrients they need for muscle and brain development.  Inadequate fuel can impact your ADHD child's behavior, mood, and sleep, and even lead to constipation.  However, your child can grow and perform better when he or she eats a variety of foods: whole grains, protein, dairy, fruits, vegetables, and water.

Dietary Intervention

Here are some tips on how diet can help manage ADHD symptoms:

  • Reduce Sugar.  Limit the amount of "added sugars"—such as sweetened beverages, sugary cereals, and candy—in your child's diet.  Only serve these as special-occasion foods.  Add sweetness to your child's diet with dairy and fruit, which contain naturally occurring sugars.  However, don't replace sugar with artificial sweeteners.

  • Avoid Certain Foods.  Some children behave better when foods with added colorings, flavorings, and preservatives are removed from their diets.  If you're considering a restricted elimination diet—by removing specific foods from your child's diet to help diagnose and treat potential food intolerances or allergies—plan to do so when you have the most control.  Work with an experienced dietitian to completely monitor and document all food and drink consumption, environmental factors, and behavior in order to identify foods that trigger ADHD symptoms.

  • Consider Adding Fatty Acids.  Some research suggests that essential fatty acid supplements can be beneficial, so check with your child's doctor.  Foods such as salmon, tuna, tilapia, halibut, and eggs (omega-3 enriched) are also good sources of fatty acids, so aim to include 3.5 ounces per person each week in your family meal plan.

  • Use Caution With Dietary Supplements.  While current research doesn't justify megavitamin supplementation in general, ask your child's doctor if he or she would benefit from a multivitamin supplement.  What's more, most herbs and dietary supplements aren't recommended because little to no research has been done on their use in children, they can interfere with medications, and their safety can be questionable.

Practical Considerations

  • A morning meal of protein and fiber will get your child off to a good start and can improve his or her concentration during school.  If your child takes too long to get ready, send him or her off with a portable meal.

  • If you send your child with a packed lunch, include nutritious foods that you know your child likes.     

  • Avoid long spans between meals.  Sometimes school lunch programs offer early lunch (1030) or late (1315).  Protect your child by coordinating a healthy snack with the teacher so he or she doesn't get overly hungry, and ensure your child has a bottle of water to drink from throughout the day.

  • Medications can cause a poor appetite, so make sure your child takes his or her medicine during or after meals (or otherwise as directed by the prescribing doctor).  When your child is at home and has a good appetite, provide small, frequent meals and snacks to help him or her take in appropriate fuel.

  • Expand your child's food preferences by offering new foods along with favorites, so there's something he or she will eat at each meal. If your child resists, suggest trying just one bite.  Continue to offer new foods often until they're accepted.  Also, try foods that are similar to ones he or she already likes, for a better chance of success.

Managing your ADHD child's nutrition isn't simple.  It often takes patience on your part as you navigate your child's individual needs, but your job will be easier if you have a plan each week.  Keep in mind that a balanced diet with a variety of nutrients can help your child do his or her best at home and in the classroom.  An important first step is to consult your child's doctor and a dietitian or nutritionist who has experience working with ADHD.  In the meantime, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ADHD page to learn more.

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