Julie Harris, RDN, LDN, CPT
Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) find it unusually difficult to concentrate on tasks, sit still, and manage impulsive behavior. ADHD may make it harder for kids to develop healthy eating habits because of the emotions, activity, and treatment that comes with this condition. This article offers information about food and nutrition as it relates to ADHD symptoms and behaviors in children.
Diet and ADHD
For the past few decades, research has focused on the effects of nutrition on ADHD, particularly if certain foods cause hyperactivity and attention issues. The current research on how nutrition affects ADHD has mixed outcomes. According to the Mayo Clinic, there isn’t enough solid evidence to say foods cause ADHD.
Yet, what we know is nutrition plays a key role in children’s physical, mental, and emotional health. With managing ADHD, a healthy diet can be part of your child’s overall treatment plan.
Figuring out what works best for you and your child with ADHD can take trial and error. But with these tips, it can make the process easier.
#1 Meal Planning for Children with ADHD
Meal planning can help your family cut back on food waste, save your money, and ensure everyone knows what’s for dinner. For children with ADHD, knowing what’s for dinner can help reduce anxiety and questions around what’s going to be on their plate.
First, start with a master list of recipes and meal ideas that your child with ADHD enjoys eating. Each week, include some of these options on your meal plan.
Try expanding the list by adding one to two new recipes each week or monthly. Do what works best for you and your family.
#2 Check for Food Sensitivities
Many children may have food sensitivities. A food intolerance may be less severe than a food allergy and may lead to digestive issues. But since children may not know how to communicate their gastrointestinal complaints, they may go under-detected.
You may notice certain symptoms after eating certain foods. Children with food sensitivities may show ADHD symptoms after they’re exposed to their troublesome foods because their body is reacting abnormally to certain ingredients.
Although nearly any food can cause issues, the more common foods that have been associated with ADHD symptoms are milk, soy, wheat, eggs, beans, tomatoes, and chocolate.
If you suspect your child may have food sensitivities, it’s helpful to first start a diet diary. But ultimately, talk with your dietitian or health care provider about trying an elimination diet to determine if your child has any food sensitivities.
#3 Limit Foods with Artificial Colors and Flavors
Processed foods often contain artificial colors and flavors. Some studies suggest that food dyes and artificial preservatives may increase ADHD behaviors in some children.
While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says studies have not proven a link between food colorings and ADHD, it may be helpful to talk with your child’s dietitian about limiting certain foods with dyes and colors.
Artificial colors also sneak in toothpaste and mouthwash. If you notice your child’s behaviors change right after eating or even brushing their teeth, try exchanging for a product without the dyes or colors.
#4 Add Fish to the Menu
Many children love fish sticks, which is great because fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are essential fatty acids, meaning we must consume them from our diets. Our brains use fatty acids as fuel and energy, memory, and to help reduce inflammation.
ADHD symptoms may be related to how certain brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) communicate information from one cell to another one. Since omega-3s are part of brain cell membranes, they may help these neurotransmitters send better signals between the cells.
Some research has found that children who have higher levels of omega-3s in their blood experience fewer ADHD symptoms, especially after mealtimes.
For children ages 2-11, a serving of fish is 1 ounce. For children over age 11, a serving of fish is 4 ounces, which is the same as an adult. As a guide, you can use the palm of your hand, which is 1 serving for older children.
One thing to keep in mind is some fish are high in mercury, which can be harmful. Some of the best choices due to lower levels of mercury are salmon, scallops, clams, haddock, and shrimp. Fish that eat other fish, like sharks and tuna, are going to be highest in mercury.
#5 Introduce Foods Slowly and Avoid Sudden Changes
The goal is to create long-lasting changes for you and your child. It can take some time for a child to make dietary changes, even if they’re foods that don’t make them feel well after eating them.
Introduce and exchange foods slowly. Perhaps choosing one or two foods to change each week. You can also include your child in the changes so they are better prepared and know what to expect.
Some dietitians and parents notice that it can take offering your child the food 10-15 times before they will even try it. Studies have associated picky eating with ADHD because their brain may be more predisposed to crave carbohydrates. Your child may push away many foods, but by working together with your child, you can add more foods to their list of approved foods. It may be a slow process, so take some deep breaths before sitting down to eat.
There isn’t one right diet for your child with ADHD. The goal is to encourage your child to have a healthy relationship with food and to lower everyone’s stress at mealtimes. You may take a lot of notes about what foods trigger certain behaviors. Once you notice how certain foods impact your child’s attitude and behaviors, work with your support team to make dietary changes.