ADHD Diet for Kids

Foods to Eat and Foods to Avoid

Lunchbox with quinoa salad with tomato and cucumber, blue berry and trail mix

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Living with ADHD can present challenges for any person, but children with ADHD may have a particularly difficult time managing it. They haven't yet learned the needed life skills for basic living, let alone the ability to work through learning difficulties.

Because of this, managing ADHD in kids typically becomes a parent's job, and an ADHD diet is one direction many people turn to in that journey.

An ADHD diet involves both foods to eat and foods to avoid. Ahead, we'll discuss what exactly comprises an ADHD diet and whether it can help kids living with ADHD. You'll also learn which foods to eat, which ones to avoid, and what to know about changing your child's diet.

Is There a Standardized ADHD Diet?

There is no scientifically specific ADHD diet. And while diet is believed to not be a cause of ADHD, many health experts have similar viewpoints on nutrition's ability to play a role in ADHD management.

Even though there is no scientifically proven ADHD diet, diet at large has been studied in direct relation to ADHD symptoms in children and results have shown that diet can improve children's ADHD symptoms.

Many experts believe similarly in terms of what you should and should not feed your child with ADHD. Some of the foods to eat and avoid have been studied individually for their roles in brain function and attention.

There are several ways to approach changing your child's diet to better manage their ADHD. The following are the three general focuses, and you can utilize one of them, two of them, or all of them.

High Nutrition

Because studies link ADHD symptoms in children with low levels of minerals such as iron, magnesium, and vitamin D, eating foods that are higher in nutrition can help to assure that your child gets all the vitamins and minerals they need.

These nutrients are vital to overall wellness, so ensuring that your child eats sufficient quantities of foods that contain them is a great idea in general, ADHD aside.

Elimination

An elimination diet is one that is used often to discern if a person has food sensitivities. It involves cutting out most foods for a short period of time, then reintroducing them one by one.

The idea is that if a specific food is causing a problem, you will learn what that food is when you reintroduce it into your diet.

This is a viable approach to take if you think that certain foods may be contributing to your child's ADHD symptoms, and studies have shown that it may prove quite useful.

Supplementation

It can be hard to get kids to eat highly nutritious food. Because of that, some people focus more on giving their children supplements to make sure they're getting the vitamins and minerals they need.

If you're considering giving your child supplements, you should speak to a medical professional first. One resource to consider is an ADHD-focused dietitian, who is likely to have studied this topic at length.

Does an ADHD-Focused Diet Help Kids With ADHD?

An ADHD diet may help kids with ADHD. Whether you take the steps to do a full elimination diet, use supplements to keep their vitamin and mineral levels up, or simply feed your child high-quality, nutritious food, there is proof that an ADHD diet can play a positive role in managing ADHD in children.

Now that we know why diet may help with ADHD, let's learn which foods fit on an ADHD diet and which foods should be avoided.

Which Foods Are Safe to Eat?

The following food groups are believed to be most beneficial for children with ADHD. Of course, it's also important to make sure the foods you feed your child align with their sensitivities and allergies.

Protein

Feeding children with ADHD-specific forms of protein, such as whey protein, has been proven to help reduce ADHD symptoms. However, it's important to note that whey protein is from cows, and it may be contaminated with herbicides or pesticides. It's best to seek grass-fed, pasture-raised, organic products. Or, you can use plant-based protein.

Overall, protein is the top macronutrient choice of experts for children with ADHD. Eating protein enables our bodies to make the neurotransmitters needed for focus, attention, and calm.

Protein-Rich Foods

  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Meats like poultry and lean beef
  • Nuts
  • Beans

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates, which are carbohydrate-rich foods in their natural form, help the brain release serotonin.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood. While all carbohydrates help the body to release serotonin, complex carbs are also full of fiber because they are left in their natural (or close to natural) state.

More fiber slows digestion which, in turn, slows the release of serotonin into our systems. This can help you avoid feeling quick highs and lows.

Complex Carb Foods

  • Root vegetables (e.g., sweet potatoes and beets)
  • Whole grains (e.g., brown rice and quinoa)

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Consumption of omega-3 has been directly correlated to an improvement in ADHD symptoms. Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for brain health in all people, but people with ADHD, including children, notoriously have lower levels of it in their systems.

Therefore, eating foods that are high in this fatty acid can have a very positive impact on ADHD symptoms.

Foods High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids

  • Sardines
  • Salmon
  • Sea bass
  • Crustaceans (e.g., oysters, shrimp)
  • Plant-based foods (e.g., chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, and soybeans)

Which Foods Should You Avoid?

Inasmuch as the above foods can help to improve and reduce symptoms of ADHD in kids, the below foods have been shown to have the opposite effect.

Refined and Simple Carbohydrates

Refined carbohydrates are processed foods that are less healthful than their original form. Sugar is the simple carb considered most troublesome for children with ADHD, and kids who eat less of it display fewer ADHD symptoms.

Other refined carbs, like white flour, make our bodies produce serotonin but lack the fiber needed for that to be a slow and steady release. Instead, they create a spike and crash effect—which they can also do to blood sugar.

Refined carbohydrates are the main ingredients in packaged snack foods from chips to crackers to fruit snacks. People in general who eat more processed foods are more likely to have ADHD.

Caffeine

As caffeine (often found in coffee, tea, and many sodas and energy drinks) can increase focus in people who do not have ADHD, it may be tempting to let your child with ADHD have caffeine. This should be avoided.

In addition to caffeine being potentially problematic for children to consume, it can significantly interfere with ADHD medications. It can also create unwanted side effects like jitteriness and anxiety.

Food Additives

Food dyes have been shown to cause some troublesome outcomes in children, such as worsening ADHD symptoms.

Both red and yellow dyes may have problematic effects on children's behavior and neurology. While artificial food colors (ACFs) are not proven to be a major cause of ADHD, some studies have indicated that ACFs have adverse effects on child behavior, including the behavior of children with ADHD.

It is advisable to avoid any foods with additives and choose whole foods that have minimal ingredients. This means choosing foods that have mostly (if not all) recognizable foods listed as the ingredients.

Food additives are found in processed foods and are typically the chemical-sounding words at the end of a nutrition label that you can't easily define. Examples include sodium benzoate and red dye #40.

A Word From Verywell

Changing your child's diet completely may not be a pleasant experience for your child, even though it can potentially improve their ADHD. Be sure to offer your child healthy treats so that they don't feel punished by their new diet, and to give them as much as possible of the healthy foods they already enjoy.

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