7 Diet Do's and Don'ts for Children With ADHD

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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There is no strong evidence that a poor diet causes children to have ADHD or that changes in the diet can cure ADHD. Even so, diet choices are important. Consider these diet dos and don’ts for children with ADHD.

1. Do Provide the Child With a Healthy Diet

Most experts agree that the best diet for a child with ADHD is the same as the best diet for a child who doesn't have ADHD. It's a diet that includes a lot of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Avoid saturated fats and trans fats. Limit rapidly digested carbohydrates, the ones found in processed foods and fast foods. Make sure the child gets enough exercise and maintains a healthy weight. If you need help planning nutritious meals, talk to your child’s doctor.

2. Don’t Try Diets That Eliminate Lots of Foods

Some people have tried severe elimination diets to treat ADHD. One such diet—the Feingold Diet—became very popular in the 1970s. Those who favored it believed that food additives and other substances caused ADHD. The diet included almost no processed foods. It also cut out many fruits and vegetables. There has been no research to support these types of radical diets. There also are diets that eliminate the artificial sweetener aspartame or all yeasts. However, research has not found that such diets help ADHD.

3. Do Limit Artificial Food Coloring

The Feingold diet may have gone too far. But, it might help to stop eating foods with artificial coloring. Studies done at Harvard University, Columbia University, and in Great Britain have found a link between food coloring and hyperactivity. Researchers think that cutting out food coloring could be up to half as effective as taking ADHD medication. The key is to remove such foods as candy, junk food, colored cereals, and fruit drinks from the child’s diet.

4. Don’t Overdose a Child With Vitamins

Megavitamin therapy uses large amounts of vitamins and minerals to treat ADHD. This was a method used in the 1970s to treat children with ADHD. The children took doses of vitamins and minerals that were 10 times the normal requirement. However, research shows this does not help ADHD. It also may cause liver damage. Many parents give their child a vitamin or mineral supplement. Just make sure the dose is not above the recommended daily allowance.

5. Do Include Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are natural nutrients. They come from foods like cold-water fish. The typical American diet can be low in omega-3s. Some studies have linked low omega-3 levels to hyperactive behavior problems in boys. A few studies suggest that omega-3s can improve symptoms of ADHD. The evidence is not strong. Still, many studies show that omega-3s make the immune system stronger and help the heart. To get more omega-3s in a child's diet, the American Psychiatric Association suggests two servings of fish each week. Fish that are low in mercury and high in omega-3s include canned light tuna, shrimp, and salmon.

6. Don’t Go Overboard on a Sugar-Free Diet

Children with ADHD can have a strong sugar craving, just like other kids. Many parents associate sugar with hyperactive behavior. It might seem that a sugar-free diet would be good for a child with ADHD. However, many studies have tried to link hyperactivity to sugar, and most have failed. There is also no proof that sugar causes ADHD or makes it worse. Even so, any child’s diet should include only a moderate amount of sugar.

7. Do Talk to Your Doctor About a Gluten-Free Diet

Gluten is a protein in certain grains—wheat, barley and rye. People who have celiac disease cannot digest gluten. To cope, they cut gluten from their diets. Some studies suggest that celiac disease is more common in children with ADHD. Evidence shows that ADHD symptoms do get better when children with celiac disease go gluten-free. If you find that these grains make your child's ADHD symptoms worse, ask the child's doctor to test for celiac disease. However, there's no evidence that children who don't have celiac disease can benefit from going gluten-free. Be sure to talk to the doctor before trying a gluten-free diet. Wheat products are an important source of B vitamins and fiber in a child’s diet.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jul 29
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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