Can your child’s ADHD be improved through diet?

Can your child’s ADHD be improved through diet?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is on the rise with 11 percent of school-age children being diagnosed with it.

As this trend grows, so do the number of approaches to treat and manage ADHD—from behavioral therapies to medications and everything in between. And while these methods may prove helpful, experts say a change in diet may also serve as tool that can help manage the disorder.

Courtney Southwood, a registered dietitian with Advocate Children’s Hospital, suggests some approaches that may prove helpful when considering dietary changes for a child with ADHD.

Finding the trouble-makers
One place to start is the elimination diet, where various foods are removed from the child’s diet and then slowly reintroduced to determine which ones affect behavior.

Southwood explains that an elimination diet allows parents and caregivers to identify foods that directly affect the behavior of children with ADHD in an adverse way. The verdict is out on whether this is effective though, says Southwood. Research has shown that some children with ADHD who respond well to this approach while some studies have shown children who do not so no conclusive results exist.

If parents choose this path, Southwood cautions them to be mindful that the child still gets the necessary vitamins and minerals to prevent nutritional deficiencies.

“I recommend a hypoallergenic, complete multivitamin to support good health,” says Southwood. “It should be free from artificial flavors, sweeteners or preservatives because that’s an area that continues to be researched as some children may respond well to this type of treatment/diet.”

Sugar and other artificial sweeteners sometimes play a key role in an elimination diet, but again the jury is still out on how effective eliminating it from the diet really is.

Southwood says focusing on a healthy, well-balanced diet, reducing, and in some cases eliminating added sugar may be beneficial.

“By shopping the perimeter of the grocery store, where you’ll find things like fresh produce, meat and seafood, you can reduce your intake of these food additives while achieving a healthier, more balanced diet, which may help children with ADHD feel better and in turn improve behavior,” she says.

If parents are interested in the elimination diet, Southwood says, “The current recommendation is to do it for four weeks, and if the child is responds well, then introduce food items one at a time back into the diet to see if the child reacts with each food that’s introduced.”

After four weeks, if the child shows no response, Southwood says, “then discontinue the diet, as more than likely it may not have an influence on behavior.”

Boost fatty acids
A 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics revealed an ADHD-free “healthy” diet that contained fiber, folate and omega-3 fatty acids. Incorporating more omega-3s and fatty acids in a child’s diet is a growing hot topic, says Southwood, in terms of its benefits for ADHD.

Although Omega-3s are a group of fats that our bodies need to function normally, the research is unclear on how effective omega-3s are on ADHD, says Southwood. Some studies have shown that with an omega-3-rich diet, children with ADHD have shown improvements in literacy and behavior, she says. Southwood adds that this diet has also proven helpful for kids with developmental or learning disabilities.

“But omega-3s are good naturally, and include fatty fish, like salmon and tuna, flax seed, walnuts and some of the healthier oils like canola,” says Southwood.

Best practices
A good overall approach for your child is to have a healthy, well-balanced diet, Southwood says. This includes fruits, veggies, lean proteins, low-fat dairy and whole grains.

She also suggests that if a family has one child with ADHD and one without it, getting the entire family involved in healthy eating makes it easier for everyone.

“It will help the child with ADHD make an overall lifestyle change supported by the whole family. Remodeling and reintroducing new foods helps promote increased acceptance of these new foods and establishes healthy eating habits going forward when the whole family is on board, says Southwood.

“By encouraging and supporting a healthy diet, you will naturally remove a lot of artificial components. Getting the most nutritious food and alleviating all that junk is a much better approach overall,” she adds.

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  1. Our son was diagnosed this last year. We have found that a daily 3600mg dosage of Omega-3 is actually one of the best ways to help him stay focused and calm in school.

  2. I do believe that healthy diet can decrease ADHD behaviours. Some sources of food that I found affected my son’s behaviour were tomato sauce ( ketchup ), red food colouring, chocolate, high sugar foods and white bread.

    • Nikki Hopewell July 17, 2013 at 11:07 am · Reply

      Andrea, I’ve heard many parents who’ve done the elimination diet discover that removing artificial ingredients can make a huge difference.

  3. There is no doubt that diet plays a huge role in behavior and learning. Artificial foods dyes/flavorings, preservatives and artificial sweeteners trigger ADHD symtoms. See and be sure to click on link to the studies.

    Studies making the link between food dyes and hyperactivity were enough to convince the European Parliament in 2008 to impose a labeling requirement indicating when foods had been colored with food dyes. As of 2010, foods in the United Kingdom containing dyes must have a warning label informing consumers the food “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” One day I hope the United States makes the same decision.

    My family has used the Feingold Program for many years. Too many children are treated with medications to treat these symptoms when a simple change in diet will bring better results.

    • Nikki Hopewell July 23, 2013 at 10:04 am · Reply

      Hi, Marcia,

      It still amazes me how far we fall behind Europe in some areas, particularly when it comes to health. I agree. I too hope the U.S. makes the same decision regarding labeling.

      And while doing research for this article, I learned about the Feingold program. It seems to help a number of those with ADHD. Glad it’s worked well for your family.

  4. Great information! It is true that diet plays an important role on treating ADHD. There are other alternatives on how to control/treat ADHD not just under pharmaceutical treatments. But parents should be know if controlling their child’s it must be balanced and depending on right amount of nutrition per day.

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.