Nutrition helps children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder learn, behave and grow. Find out how ADHD nutrition for kids can improve overall functioning and health.
In the past decade, attention to what kids with ADHD are eating has grown. Thankfully! If you are parenting a child with ADHD, you know nutrition is helpful, but also a potential point of frustration. That’s because children with ADHD don’t always eat enough, eat consistently, or choose the most nutritious foods.
In this article, you’ll learn about the food and nutrients that are important to a child with ADHD, how to optimize them in the eating pattern, and where to find them in food. And, you’ll get a few feeding tips and other insights.
Why the Dietary Pattern for a Kid with ADHD Matters
Kids with ADHD have the usual milestones to achieve, just as kids without ADHD do: They need to learn, grow, and experience the world around them.
Yet, kids with ADHD may also have other challenges with which to contend: Picky eating, unhealthy snacking, weight concerns (both underweight and overweight), constipation, and more.
It’s not surprising that ADHD nutrition is an essential component to the successful management of this condition.
As a pediatric dietitian, I’ve helped many children with ADD and ADHD eat a better diet, while supporting their parents through the daily grind of feeding them. I’ve done so much work in this area, I created a class for parents to get them started on better nutrition for their children.
A nutritious diet combined with ADHD medications can be an effective way to help children improve their learning, attention, and moderate any impulsive behaviors or symptoms of hyperactivity. In other words, it may improve a child’s ADHD symptoms.
Not only that, good nutrition helps your child feel good and grow well.
ADHD and Healthy Foods
A diet that is balanced with nutritious, wholesome foods rich in protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates is good for kids with ADHD.
Limiting added sugar, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors (food dyes) and other artificial additives in children who show sensitivity to these, may also be good for them.
Yet, picky eating, impulsive or out-of-control eating, and repetitive food patterns plague kids with ADD and ADHD. These dietary habits don’t help them.
Feeding kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder should be as consistent as possible, based on a scheduled mealtime pattern. Regular meals and snacks ensure adequate nutrition is available throughout the day…even when a child isn’t hungry.
When regular meals and snacks are eaten it can encourage better attention, behavior, satiety and growth.
Last, ADHD nutrition isn’t just about food, it also prioritizes feeding interactions that are positive and encouraging.
Case Study: A Boy with ADHD
Peter (name changed) had ADHD. He was very thin, ate poorly, and was a picky eater.
His diet consisted of mostly white foods, especially white bread, and rarely did a fruit or veggie pass his lips.
Give him crunchy, cheesy, salty, or sweet foods and he was a happy camper!
When Peter was diagnosed, he started on daily medications, which dampened his appetite.
There were many days when the majority of his eating happened near the end of the day.
That’s when his medications wore off and he was hungry.
Peter’s mom wanted help with three main things:
- To help him to eat more vegetables,
- To encourage him to try new foods,
- And, to address his thinness by helping him gain some weight.
In essence, she wanted (and needed) to transition Peter to healthier meals and a better overall plan for nutrition.
Peter was easily distracted and made careless mistakes, so she was hoping a healthier diet would improve this.
In my professional opinion, I agreed.
Peter needed to make the transition to more nutritious foods and a schedule for meals and snacks.
His eating patterns were erratic and incomplete, and he wasn’t eating enough.
This was affecting his growth, behavior and ability to focus in the classroom, making learning challenging for him.Parents who have kids with ADHD are generally concerned about picky eating, weight, and their child's behavior. #adhddiet #healthyeating #brainfood Click To Tweet
The ADHD Diet is Nutrient-Rich
The childhood years are an incredibly important foundation to future adult health.
While research is still evolving, there is quite a bit of evidence that good nutrition can help a child with ADHD.
For instance, the brain needs nutrients for brain function, especially iron, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and a host of other nutrients.
From complex carbs to healthy fats, a nutritious diet is like washing the brain in the nutrients it needs to function optimally.
Specifically, a nutritious and balanced diet can help children with ADHD focus, behave better, and get along with others.
Plus, good nutrition maximizes your child’s growth and may prevent chronic diseases down the road.
Unfortunately, studies have shown that some children with ADHD miss out on key nutrients in their diets and this may affect their ability to focus, behave and grow.
ADHD Medications and Appetite
Good nutrition is not always easy to achieve.
In children with ADHD, for example, there can be many obstacles to eating well.
For instance, many of the medications used to support ADHD may suppress a child’s appetite, reducing his eating.
When on these medications, your child may have little to no appetite.
When off of the medications, he may have a voracious appetite.
Research has shown some medications cause stomach pain or nausea, which may be so uncomfortable that kids are disinterested in eating.
I cover the many reasons why children with ADHD aren’t hungry in this article.
Picky Eaters, Sensory Issues and ADHD
Another barrier to good nutrition is picky eating.
Picky eating can stem from a sensory sensitivity to texture, smell or appearance,
Or, it can be learned along the way due to ineffective approaches and feeding mistakes.
Picky eating can certainly prevent your child from getting optimal nutrition.
Of course, there are more obstacles, like food sensitivities that may interfere with eating enough food.
When these eating behaviors and concerns pile up on each other, feeding your child can be a real challenge, and a real stressor for families.
If this is your reality, you might consider more help, like feeding therapy. Check out my Guide for parents of extremely picky eaters who are looking for more help.
The Role of Nutrients in ADHD Nutrition
I’ve personally witnessed how good food and a feeding strategy can help children with ADHD.
When in place, kids feel and function better in the world.
We are learning more about what children with ADHD need nutritionally, which enables us to pinpoint the nutrients and foods that can help them.
The ADHD nutrition plan is made up of several components, including several nutrients you’ll want to keep an eye on, plus adequate calories and regular opportunities to eat.
Attention to this can help ensure your child gets enough to eat and may improve his appetite.
Of course, the natural question is should your child go on nutritional supplements to cover these nutrients?
That is a conversation for you and your healthcare provider.
I don’t automatically place every child with ADHD on micronutrient supplements, but if the eating pattern and dietary choices aren’t supporting a child’s health, I strongly consider supplementation while working on food variety and better eating.
Here are some of the key nutrients for ADHD and the scientific evidence (to date) behind micronutrient status in children with ADHD and why these nutrients are important to the behavior of children :
Kids with ADHD tend to be lacking fiber in their diet.
This is partly due to picky eating that eliminates fruits and vegetables.
Nuts, seeds and whole grain items like brown rice or whole grain pasta, as well as fruits and vegetables, are great ways to increase the fiber in your child’s diet.
If your child struggles with constipation, you’ll want to make sure fiber and fluids are getting fair representation in the daily diet.
My natural constipation relief guide can give you further insight.
2. Polyunsaturated Fats (Omega-3 Fatty Acids)
Low levels of essential fatty acids are seen in children with ADHD.
“Essential” means these nutrients aren’t made by your child’s body.
These fatty acids need to come from outside the body, in order to meet your child’s requirements for them. In other words, they need to come from food or a supplement.
Healthy fats such as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are found mostly in plant food sources like nuts, canola or safflower oils, as well as some fish.
PUFAs help blood circulate in the brain.
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
One type of fatty acid, called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is known to improve blood circulation in the brain.
EPA has been shown in some research to reduce the symptoms of ADHD, such as improving attention and reducing hyperactivity and impulsivity.
Other studies have shown little effect.
As with so much in the nutrition world, we need more research.
Offering your child sources of plant fats and fish is unlikely to harm them and we have plenty of evidence for other health benefits.
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
Another fatty acid, called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an important element in nerve cell functioning.
A deficit of DHA in the diet has been associated with poor literacy.
Generally, research shows that supplementing with a blend of both EPA and DHA may be effective at optimizing overall function in the child with ADHD.
Higher dosage levels of EPA in the fish oil blend is preferred.
Again, research is evolving and not conclusive at this time.
In general, the role of magnesium in the body is to help calm nerves and muscles, encourage blood flow throughout the body, and process the calories and nutrients consumed from food.
A deficiency of magnesium has been seen in children with ADHD and low levels are tied to more distractibility and hyperactivity.
Researchers have noted that a diet rich in magnesium foods may help children with ADHD pay attention, focus, and learn better.
Foods with magnesium include beans, seeds, whole grains, almonds and other nuts.
Inadequate iron in the diet, especially in the early years of life, is associated with poor cognitive development.
In other words, when iron deficiency exists during early brain development (during the first 1,000 days and up to age five), the brain may not reach its full intellectual capacity.
An iron deficiency can have additional far-reaching consequences, such as poor immunity, fatigue, and poor learning later in life.
Some children with ADHD experience symptoms of iron deficiency.
One sign of low iron intake is trouble sleeping and restless leg syndrome.
Even if iron levels fall within the low end of normal blood level ranges, kids may have symptoms.
Children with ADHD, especially picky eaters, are at higher risk for low iron.
They may not be getting good sources in their diet, such as beef, poultry, beans and dark leafy greens.
A documented iron deficiency anemia should be treated with iron supplementation under the direction of your healthcare provider.
Too much iron can be harmful, so a healthcare professional can help you get the dosage right.
Iron supplementation in children with ADHD who are not iron-deficient may not be effective.
You’ll also want to optimize iron sources in the diet.
Like iron, zinc is involved in brain development, nerve communication, other activities of the brain, growth, and immunity.
In children with ADHD, poor zinc status has been linked to inattentiveness (but not impulsivity or hyperactivity).
Low zinc status is also linked to poor growth and a poor appetite.
A zinc deficiency should be treated, possibly with supplementation. Unfortunately, we don’t have good tests to measure zinc adequacy, so a good dietary assessment can give clues as to whether your child is getting enough zinc.
Certainly, you can optimize zinc intake from foods including beans, beef, fortified breakfast cereals and milk.
In the typical Western diet and for some individuals, folate is inadequately consumed (despite fortification with folate in many grain products).
Studies have found that hyperactivity is associated with low folate, and in children on ADHD medications, getting enough folic acid may improve appetite.
Adding foods rich in folate has been advised as part of a healthy diet for children with ADHD. Dark green leafy vegetables, peanuts, beans, sunflower seeds, fresh fruit and fruit juices are a good bet.
What Foods Should a Child with ADHD Avoid?
Certain foods have been identified as contributing to ADHD behaviors.
These may include fast food items, red meat, processed meats, potato chips and other similar snack chips, high fat dairy products, and soft drinks. But note, this is not the case for every child with ADHD.
If your child appears to be sensitive to these types of foods (that is, their behavior seems to worsen when they eat them), you might include them in your child’s diet in smaller amounts or eliminate them altogether. But be careful here. Eliminating foods from your child’s diet may make it harder to include the nutrient-rich foods they need.
If fast food and other processed foods have a stronghold in your child’s diet, you can slowly reduce and minimize them as much as possible.
Also, some children with ADHD react, or are sensitive to, additives in food, including food colors, food preservatives such as MSG, nitrates and nitrites, and artificial sugar (aspartame).
Studies have shown that about 8% of children with ADHD may be sensitive to artificial food colorings.
Some experts believe that number to be higher.
[Listen: My interview with Laura Stevens, a researcher in food dyes and how they affect children with ADHD in this episode of The Nourished Child podcast.]
If your child is sensitive to any of these, start to downgrade them, slowly but surely, in your child’s diet.
What about Sugar and ADHD?
A small number of children demonstrate sensitivity to refined sugar (added sugar). They may demonstrate more aggression when they consume it.
Research isn’t conclusive about whether the sugar itself is the trigger or whether the surges and plummets in blood sugar a child may experience when eating sugary foods is the culprit.
If your child is sensitive and eating quite a bit of sugary foods, you’ll want to trim them down.
Feeding the Child with ADHD
Feeding kids with ADHD is optimal when structure, boundaries, and guided choices are in place at home.
As the brain relies on glucose (the simplest form of sugar that circulates in the body after complete digestion of food) for energy, it makes sense that regular meals and snacks should be scheduled to offer the brain a consistent source of energy to function well.
It also makes sense that when a child goes for long periods without eating, his behavior, concentration, and learning may deteriorate.
That’s why I always advise a structure to feeding kids with ADHD, emphasizing a regular eating schedule. Learn more about boundaries and guided choices.
Got an underweight child with ADHD?
I recommend more frequent meals and snacks during the day.
Even if your child will only drink a fruit-based smoothie or a cheese stick and crackers during the day while on medications, their behavior, focus and general feeling of energy and positivity will benefit from small feedings throughout the day.The brain relies on glucose for energy, so providing a regular supply of energy from food makes sense. Click To Tweet
A Positive Vibe at Mealtimes
There may be behaviors, eating habits, and other challenges you have to navigate on a daily basis, especially at mealtime.
Remember to always try to keep food and feeding a positive encounter, without pressure to eat, punishment, or negative emotions.
Change is good, but optimizing food and feeding can take time. Keep it slow and gradual!
Does Food Fix ADHD?
Many parents are excited about improving nutrition for their child with ADHD.
They often ask if food will fix their child’s ADHD.
Food and nutrition are complementary to the treatment and management of ADHD. That is, a nutritious diet will support ADHD medication therapy and the behavior management plan.
Food can also help your child stay calm and focused. What is true? A lack of food can worsen your child’s ADHD symptoms.
There is no research that indicates food can fix, cure, or prevent ADHD.
Learn more about ADHD nutrition for the child!
More Resources for ADHD Nutrition for Kids
I created a comprehensive class for parents like you to learn the ins and outs of nutritional management in the child with ADHD (click on photo above).
From meal plans to specific nutrients and specialized diets, you’ll learn everything you need to know about ADHD nutrition including essential food and nutrients, feeding strategies and how to overcome common food challenges so that you can help your child function at his or her best. Check it out!
Also, check out my other resources for ADHD.
You may also want to read:
- 11 Stool Softener Foods for Kids
- Constipation: Quick Relief for Kids (With Real Food)
- 25 Allergy Free Snacks for School
- How to Grow as a Teen: 7 Ways to Support Healthy Teenage Growth
This post was updated in November, 2023.