Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affects many children, making it challenging for them to focus, control impulses, and manage their energy levels. While medication and behavioural therapies are common treatments, diet also plays a crucial role in managing ADHD symptoms. This article explores the best ADHD diet for kids, highlighting foods to include and avoid, and providing a comprehensive guide for parents seeking dietary strategies to support their children’s health.

What Is an ADHD Diet?

An ADHD diet is a well-balanced nutritional plan that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and proteins. This type of diet ensures that children receive all the essential nutrients needed for optimal brain and body function.

How Does Diet Affect ADHD in Kids?

According to a review done on diet and food in ADHD, diet can potentially affect the symptoms of ADHD. For instance, some research within the review found that dietary sugars had a negative effect on ADHD symptoms. Evidence suggests that high sugar intake can exacerbate symptoms of ADHD in children. Research has shown that excessive sugar consumption may lead to increased hyperactivity and impulsivity, which are core symptoms of ADHD. The study found that diets high in sugar and artificial food colouring can negatively impact the behaviour and cognitive performance of children with ADHD. Furthermore, a meta-analysis conducted, revealed that sugar can affect the behaviour and cognitive function of children, particularly those with ADHD. This suggests that while diet might not be the sole factor influencing ADHD, it can play a significant role in mitigating the symptoms of ADHD in children.

Exciting and ongoing research in the field of ADHD and diet is increasingly focusing on understanding how various dietary factors influence the symptoms and management of ADHD in children. Current studies, which will be discussed later in this article, are exploring the role of specific nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, iron, and zinc, and their impact on cognitive function and behaviour. Additionally, researchers are investigating the effects of elimination diets, which remove potential dietary triggers such as artificial food colourings, preservatives, and certain allergens, to assess improvements in ADHD symptoms. Efforts are also being made to understand the gut-brain connection, with studies examining how gut microbiota might influence ADHD symptoms. Longitudinal studies are crucial for establishing causal relationships between diet and ADHD, aiming to provide evidence-based dietary recommendations. Collaborative research efforts are integrating dietary studies with genetic and environmental factors to create comprehensive management strategies for children with ADHD, aiming to improve their overall quality of life.

Best Foods for Kids with ADHD

Including the right foods in an ADHD diet for kids can help improve concentration, reduce hyperactivity, and provide essential nutrients for overall health.

High-Protein Foods:

A high-protein diet has been shown to be effective in managing symptoms of ADHD in children by enhancing focus and concentration. Protein can help regulate blood sugar levels and sustain energy, reducing the spikes and crashes that can exacerbate ADHD symptoms. It also provides the amino acids necessary for the production of neurotransmitters, which are critical for maintaining attention and cognitive function. Sources of protein such as lean meats, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes, nuts, and seeds are all beneficial. While organic meat may offer fewer additives and hormones, the overall protein content is comparable to non-organic options, and both can be effective. The debate over animal versus plant-based protein centres on amino acid profiles, with animal proteins typically containing all essential amino acids. However, a well-planned vegan diet combining different plant proteins can also meet these needs effectively, suggesting that children from vegan families can achieve similar results in managing ADHD symptoms.

High Protein Foods

Omega-3 Fatty Acids:

Omega-3 fatty acids have shown effectiveness in managing ADHD symptoms in children by supporting brain function and reducing hyperactivity and impulsiveness. These essential fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are crucial components of the neuronal cell membrane, influencing membrane fluidity and signal transmission. Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which are vital for brain health. Studies have demonstrated that children with ADHD often have lower levels of omega-3s, and supplementation can help improve attention, cognitive performance, and behaviour.

The most potent sources of omega-3s include fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines. For vegan families, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3, can be found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts. Although ALA needs to be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, which occurs inefficiently, these sources still provide beneficial omega-3s. Additionally, algae oil is a direct vegan source of DHA, making it an excellent supplement for enhancing brain function and managing ADHD symptoms.

Omega 3 sources

Complex Carbohydrates:

A diet high in complex carbohydrates can be effective for children with ADHD by helping to regulate blood sugar levels, which is crucial for managing symptoms such as hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and inattentiveness. Complex carbohydrates break down more slowly than simple carbohydrates, leading to a gradual release of glucose into the bloodstream, thereby maintaining steady energy levels and preventing the spikes and crashes associated with simple carbs. This steady energy supply supports better brain function and mood stability. Good sources of complex carbohydrates include whole grains (such as oats, brown rice, and quinoa), legumes (beans, lentils, and chickpeas), vegetables (sweet potatoes, carrots, and broccoli), and fruits (berries, apples, and pears). Unlike simple carbohydrates found in sugary snacks, white bread, and sodas, complex carbohydrates provide sustained energy and essential nutrients. Simple dietary swaps can make a significant difference: replace white bread with whole-grain bread, sugary cereals with oatmeal, white rice with brown rice or quinoa, and snacks like cookies with fruits or vegetable sticks. These changes help in maintaining balanced blood sugar levels, thus aiding in the better management of ADHD symptoms in children.

Complex Carbohydrates

    Vitamins and Minerals:

    Foods rich in zinc, iron, and magnesium, such as spinach, pumpkin seeds, and fortified cereals, are crucial for brain health and managing ADHD. These nutrients, found in fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, support neurotransmitter function and cognitive performance. The respective micronutrients that are indicated in children with ADHD will be discussed more extensively, later in this article under the heading: Nutritional supplements for ADHD children.

    Dairy and Calcium:

    A diet high in dairy can be beneficial for children with ADHD primarily due to its rich calcium and protein content, which are essential for brain function and overall health. Calcium plays a crucial role in neurotransmitter release and muscle function, while the proteins in dairy, particularly casein, provide the amino acids necessary for neurotransmitter synthesis. Research indicates that adequate calcium levels can help stabilise mood and improve cognitive function, thereby potentially alleviating some ADHD symptoms. However, the relationship between casein and ADHD is complex; some studies suggest that certain children with ADHD may have sensitivities to casein, which could exacerbate symptoms, while others do not show a significant link. Good sources of dairy include milk, cheese, yogurt, and fortified plant-based milks for additional calcium intake.

    For vegan families, achieving the same benefits can be done through various plant-based sources. Fortified plant milks (such as almond, soy, and oat milk), leafy green vegetables (like kale, broccoli, and bok choy), tofu, tempeh, and fortified orange juice are excellent sources of calcium. Additionally, incorporating a variety of plant-based proteins such as legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains ensures adequate amino acid intake for neurotransmitter synthesis, supporting brain function and helping manage ADHD symptoms.

    Dairy and Calcium

    Foods to Avoid with ADHD Child

    Sugar and Simple carbohydrates:

    Children with ADHD should avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates because these substances can cause rapid spikes and subsequent crashes in blood glucose levels, which can exacerbate ADHD symptoms such as hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and difficulty concentrating. The rapid increase in blood sugar levels can lead to bursts of energy followed by fatigue and irritability, affecting a child’s mood and behaviour negatively. Additionally, excessive sugar intake can lead to poor nutrition, affecting overall brain health and development.

    Healthier sweet treat options for children with ADHD include those that contain natural sugars and have a low glycaemic index, which helps in maintaining stable blood glucose levels. Better alternatives, which will not only satisfy sweet cravings but also provide essential nutrients that support overall health and stable energy levels, may include the following:

    • Fresh Fruits: Berries, apples, pears, and oranges are naturally sweet and high in fibre, which slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream.
    • Yogurt with Fresh Fruit: Plain or Greek yogurt topped with fresh fruits and a sprinkle of nuts or seeds provides protein and healthy fats alongside natural sweetness.
    • Homemade Fruit Smoothies: Blending fruits with vegetables like spinach or kale and adding a bit of yogurt or a plant-based milk can make a delicious and nutritious treat.
    • Nut Butter on Whole Grain Crackers or Apple Slices: Provides a balance of protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates.
    • Dark Chocolate: In moderation, dark chocolate with a high cocoa content and low added sugar can be a healthier treat.
    • Homemade Energy Balls: Made with oats, nuts, seeds, and a touch of honey or dates, these can be a nutritious snack that provides sustained energy.

    Sugar and simple carbohydrates

    Artificial additives:

    Children with ADHD should avoid artificial additives because these substances can exacerbate symptoms such as hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and inattention. Research has indicated that certain artificial colourings and preservatives can negatively impact behaviour and cognitive function in children with ADHD. Specific additives to avoid include artificial food colourings like Red 40, Yellow 5, and Blue 1, as well as preservatives such as sodium benzoate, and artificial sweeteners like aspartame. These additives can disrupt neurotransmitter balance and increase oxidative stress, contributing to worsening ADHD symptoms.

      Parents can manage this by carefully reading food labels. Advice for label reading includes looking for the names or E-numbers (codes used in the European Union) of artificial colourings and preservatives. Common E-numbers to watch out for include E102 (Tartrazine), E110 (Sunset Yellow), E122 (Carmoisine), E124 (Ponceau 4R), E129 (Allura Red), and E211 (Sodium Benzoate). If an ingredient list includes any of these, it’s best to avoid that product.

      Instead, children should be offered foods that are less likely to contain artificial additives. These include whole, unprocessed foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and lean meats. Preparing meals from scratch using natural ingredients allows for better control over what children consume. Additionally, choosing organic products, which are often free from artificial additives, can further help in reducing exposure to these substances and mitigating ADHD symptoms.

      Artificial additives


      Caffeine increases anxiety and jitteriness in children with ADHD through its effects on the central nervous system. As a stimulant, caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain, which are responsible for promoting relaxation and sleepiness. By blocking these receptors, caffeine increases the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and glutamate, which are associated with increased alertness and arousal. While in individuals without ADHD, these effects may be manageable, children with ADHD often have heightened sensitivity to stimulants, making them more susceptible to experiencing increased anxiety, restlessness, and difficulty in focusing when consuming caffeine.

      Furthermore, excessive caffeine intake can disrupt sleep patterns, exacerbating ADHD symptoms. Foods and beverages high in caffeine that should be avoided include coffee, tea, energy drinks, soda, chocolate, and certain medications or supplements containing caffeine (e.g., some pain relievers and weight loss supplements). Limiting or avoiding these sources of caffeine can help manage anxiety and jitteriness in children with ADHD.


      Gluten and Casein:

      The evidence regarding the impact of gluten and casein on ADHD symptoms in children is mixed. Some studies suggest that a subset of children with ADHD may experience exacerbation of symptoms due to sensitivity to gluten and/or casein, while others have found no significant effect. The mechanisms behind how gluten and casein might worsen ADHD symptoms are not fully understood but could involve immune reactions, gut inflammation, and alterations in neurotransmitter function.

      Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, while casein is a protein found in milk and dairy products. In individuals with certain sensitivities or intolerances, consuming gluten or casein may trigger immune responses or inflammation in the gut, potentially leading to systemic effects that impact brain function and behaviour. Additionally, some research suggests that opioid-like peptides derived from the digestion of gluten and casein may interact with opioid receptors in the brain, affecting mood, cognition, and behaviour.

      Signs of sensitivity to gluten or casein may include gastrointestinal symptoms (such as bloating, abdominal pain, or diarrhoea), skin issues (such as eczema or rashes), behavioural changes (such as irritability, hyperactivity, or inattention), and changes in mood or sleep patterns. However, these symptoms can vary widely among individuals, and some children with sensitivities may not exhibit obvious signs.

      Whether parents should include gluten and casein in their children’s diet depends on individual circumstances. If a child shows signs of sensitivity or intolerance to gluten or casein, it may be beneficial to eliminate or reduce these substances from their diet under the guidance of a healthcare professional. However, for children without apparent sensitivities, there may be no need to restrict gluten or casein intake, as removing these components from the diet could lead to nutritional deficiencies if not adequately replaced. Consulting with your paediatric dietitian can help you make informed decisions about your child’s dietary needs and whether avoiding gluten or casein is appropriate for managing ADHD symptoms.

      Gluten and Casein

      Processed foods:

      Processed foods can be detrimental to children with ADHD due to several reasons. Firstly, processed foods often contain high levels of artificial additives such as preservatives, artificial colours, and flavour enhancers, which have been linked to worsening ADHD symptoms, as explained above. Secondly, processed foods are typically low in nutrients and high in unhealthy fats, sugars, and refined carbohydrates, which can lead to unstable blood sugar levels and mood swings, further impacting behaviour and cognitive function. Additionally, processed foods often lack essential vitamins, minerals, and fibre necessary for optimal brain health and function. Foods that should be limited by children with ADHD include:

        • Sugary snacks and desserts: Processed sweets such as candies, cookies, cakes, and pastries.
        • Sugary beverages: Sodas, fruit juices, energy drinks, and flavoured beverages.
        • Fast food and fried foods: High-fat, fried, and processed foods like burgers, fries, chicken nuggets, and pizza.
        • Packaged snacks: Processed snacks like chips, crackers, and snack bars often contain artificial additives, preservatives, and unhealthy fats, which can exacerbate ADHD symptoms.

      Processed foods

      Nutritional Supplements for ADHD Kids

      It is always better to obtain nutrients through whole foods, however often this may be quite challenging due to various reasons such as restrictive eating behaviours, oral aversion, busy lifestyles, and our ‘Westernised diet’ culture. Talk to your dietitian to see whether supplementation may be warranted. Certain supplements have shown to provide additional support for managing ADHD symptoms:

      • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Essential for brain function and development, they help reduce hyperactivity and improve attention. These can be obtained from fatty fish (such as salmon and mackerel), flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
      • Iron: Crucial for oxygen transport and energy metabolism in the brain, iron deficiency is linked to cognitive deficits and worsened ADHD symptoms. Good sources include lean meats, spinach, lentils, and fortified cereals.
      • Zinc: Important for neurotransmitter function and modulation of dopamine, zinc can help improve attention and reduce hyperactivity. Sources include meat, shellfish, legumes, seeds, nuts, and dairy products.
      • Magnesium: Involved in many brain processes, including neurotransmitter release and brain energy metabolism, magnesium can help alleviate restlessness and improve focus. Rich sources include green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
      • Vitamin B6: Vital for the synthesis of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which are critical for mood regulation and cognitive function. Sources include poultry, fish, potatoes, bananas, and chickpeas.
      • Vitamin D: Supports brain health and function, and deficiency is linked to increased ADHD symptoms. Sunlight exposure helps produce vitamin D, while dietary sources include fatty fish, fortified dairy products, and egg yolks.
      • Vitamin C: Helps with neurotransmitter synthesis and protects against oxidative stress in the brain. Sources include citrus fruits, strawberries, bell peppers, and broccoli.
      • Folate (Vitamin B9): Important for brain development and function, folate deficiency can impair cognitive function. Good sources are leafy green vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fortified grains.
      • Calcium: Essential for neurotransmitter release and muscle function, calcium can be found in dairy products, fortified plant milks, leafy greens, and tofu.

      Best Diet Plans for ADHD Kids:

      Several specialised diets have shown promise in managing ADHD symptoms in children:

      Paleo Diet for Kids with ADHD:

      This diet focuses on whole, unprocessed foods, similar to what our ancestors ate. It includes meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, while excluding processed foods, grains, and dairy. Some parents find the paleo diet helpful for managing ADHD symptoms due to its emphasis on natural, nutrient-dense foods.

      Feingold Diet:

      The Feingold diet is a special diet for ADHD kids eliminating artificial colours, flavours, and certain preservatives. Many families report behavioural improvements with this diet, although scientific evidence is mixed.

      Elimination Diet:

      This diet involves removing potential trigger foods and then gradually reintroducing them to identify which foods worsen ADHD symptoms. Common eliminations include gluten, dairy, soy, and corn.

      High Protein Diet:

      A high-protein diet includes plenty of lean meats, eggs, beans, and nuts. Protein is essential for neurotransmitter production and can help improve concentration and reduce hyperactivity.

      A typical meal guide for kids with ADHD:

      A typical meal guide for kids with ADHD

      Additional Tips for Kids with ADHD

      • General Nutrition:
        • Balanced Diet: Ensure a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. This provides essential nutrients that support brain function and overall health.
        • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Include sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, which have been shown to improve cognitive function and reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity.
        • Avoid Artificial Additives: Minimise or eliminate foods with artificial colours, flavours, and preservatives, as these can exacerbate ADHD symptoms.
        • Low-Glycaemic Foods: Opt for complex carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to maintain stable  blood sugar levels, preventing spikes and crashes that can affect behaviour and attention.
        • Iron and Zinc: Ensure adequate intake of iron and zinc through foods like lean meats, legumes, nuts, seeds, and fortified cereals, as deficiencies in these minerals are linked to increased ADHD symptoms.
        • Seeing a dietitian can help support you when making changes to a child’s diet.
      • Hydration:
        • Adequate Water Intake: Encourage regular water consumption throughout the day to prevent dehydration, which can affect cognitive function and concentration.
        • Limit Sugary Drinks: Avoid or minimise sugary beverages like soda and juice, which can cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels and contribute to hyperactivity.
      • Sleep:
        • Consistent Sleep Schedule: Establish a regular sleep routine with a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, even on weekends. Adequate sleep is crucial for cognitive function and emotional regulation.
        • Sleep Environment: Create a calming bedtime environment by reducing noise and light and keeping the bedroom cool and comfortable.
        • Limit Screen Time: Reduce exposure to screens (TV, tablets, smartphones) at least one hour before bedtime, as blue light can interfere with the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
      • Physical Activity:
        • Regular Exercise: Encourage daily physical activity, such as playing outside, sports, or even simple activities like walking or biking. Physical activity helps reduce hyperactivity and improve attention.
        • Incorporate Fun Activities: Engage your child in activities they enjoy ensuring they stay active and motivated. Activities like swimming, dancing, or martial arts can be particularly beneficial.
      • Overall Lifestyle:
        • Mindfulness and Relaxation: Teach mindfulness techniques and relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing, yoga, or meditation, to help manage stress and improve focus.
        • Structured Routine: Maintain a structured and predictable daily routine to provide stability and reduce anxiety, which can worsen ADHD symptoms.

        A healthy diet for kids with ADHD is crucial in managing their symptoms and improving their quality of life. Emphasising high-protein foods, omega-3 fatty acids, complex carbohydrates, and essential vitamins and minerals can support brain function and reduce hyperactivity. Avoiding sugar, artificial additives, and potential allergens like gluten and casein is also important. Special diets like the paleo diet and elimination diet can be effective strategies for some children. Always consult your paediatric dietitian before making significant changes to your child’s diet to ensure their nutritional needs are met.

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