Ask Keri: My child has ADHD. Are there foods that can help?
Keri Says: Based on the science available so far, the best diet for ADHD looks a lot like the healthiest diet for any kid. It’s based on whole foods, minimizes processed, packaged foods, and includes lots of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and protein.
Of course, kids with ADHD may be more sensitive to certain foods (more on that below), so you may want to stick to guidelines on things like candy intake a little more strictly with a child that has ADHD.
One approach—the Feingold Diet—is often presented as an ADHD cure. I seriously wish it worked, because I’d love to point to something super concrete parents can do. Unfortunately, the evidence so far is not great. A select group of kids may benefit from the elimination-style approach, but research shows it’s not that effective overall. Even worse, the diet calls for eliminating many nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables like blueberries and broccoli. It’s already tricky getting kids to eat enough produce, and I’d hate to advise against giving them foods that are otherwise known as antioxidant-packed, fiber-rich superstars.
Research is ongoing, and I hope that at some point soon we will have more answers when it comes to using nutrition to totally eliminate symptoms of ADHD. In the meantime, there are a few things that show promise. Here’s what you need to know.
Nutrition and ADHD: Avoid These Foods
Food Dyes and Preservatives
Feingold did sound an alarm about food dyes, and the evidence for cutting those out of the picture is compelling. One large double-blind study looked at the effects of artificial food colorings and benzoate preservatives on three-year olds and found significant increases in hyperactive behavior in children consuming the additives compared to a placebo. A meta-analysis done by researchers at Columbia and Harvard Universities came to similar conclusions, although both studies suggest certain children with ADHD may be more susceptible than others to the effects of food dyes.
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Sugar is interesting: While most of us associate it with hyperactivity, there isn’t a lot of concrete evidence that it actually causes it. Still, as a parent, I’ve seen my kids in the midst of a sugar rush, and we all know that sugar is bad for our kids’ health, overall. Sugar also definitely causes inflammation, and research is currently developing on whether inflammation may be a mechanism that underlies ADHD. While studies have demonstrated a possible role inflammation plays in the disorder, the evidence is not yet clear. (It is clear that inflammation is bad for your kid’s health, overall.)
So, if you’re working with a kid who already struggles with hyperactivity, I’d focus even more on minimizing simple sugars.
Here’s the thing: If you cut out as many processed, packaged foods as possible and stick to whole foods, your child’s diet will naturally be low in dyes, preservatives, and sugar.
Nutrition and ADHD: Include These Foods
Okay, so I already gave the general rule: Focus on vegetables, fruits, protein, and healthy fats. That sounds general, I know, and there are a few more specific things that might help.
Healthy people need a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats, but most of us don’t get enough of the 3 variety. Since these special fatty acids are crucial for brain health—they’re involved in brain cell communication and transmitting important neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin—researchers have looked at whether a deficiency might increase symptoms of ADHD. Some studies so far have shown associations between ADHD and low levels of omega-3s in children. Studies on supplementation, however, have not demonstrated a clear benefit.
So, what to do? Your best bet is making sure your kiddos are getting enough in their diet. Think: salmon, walnuts, avocados, etc! (And you can definitely discuss supplementation with your MD.)
The gut-brain connection is now well established, and many of the neurotransmitters that regulate emotion, mood, and behavior originate in the gut. Because of that, experts believe an imbalanced gut microbiome is correlated with some neurodevelopmental disorders, including ADHD. That means helping your child maintain a healthy gut is imperative. Fiber-rich foods like vegetables are key, as are fermented foods. I know, it might be tricky to get a ten-year-old to eat kimchi, but most can be convinced to eat Greek yogurt for breakfast (especially if you add delicious, healthy toppings). Whether a probiotic supplement will help is not fully established, yet, but again, you can try it or ask your doctor about it.
Micronutrients like vitamin D and minerals like iron, magnesium, and zinc may also play a role in ADHD, but again, the evidence is inconclusive. It may be worth giving your child a multi, but make sure it’s one made without colors and preservatives. Or, again, if they’re eating a ton of healthy, whole foods, they’ll likely be getting all of those nutrients.
The trouble, I know, is that it’s hard to get kids to eat those foods. (I get it, believe me!) For help, check out some of my past tips: