Since the 1970s researchers have been investigating whether there is a connection between what children eat and the growing incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While no one study has been conclusive, especially since the reaction to various substances, alone and in combination, varies from child to child, some research indicates that there could be a correlation between elements of a child’s diet and their levels of hyperactivity and problems paying attention. While these common areas of concern are worth taking another look, it is generally not recommended that diet alone be used to treat ADHD. However, there may be benefits in modest dietary changes within an overall healthy diet, along with other evidence-based strategies such as behavioral therapy, school support, medications and parent education.
Well-Being took a look at some dietary “troublemakers” that may increase the symptoms of ADHD and the “peacemakers” that may actually help calm the effects of ADHD and improve focus.
Artificial colorings and additives In 1975 an allergist suggested that artificial colors, flavors and preservatives might lead to hyperactivity in some children, and while some other experts may disagree, at least one relatively recent study indicates that some food colorings and one preservative did appear to increase hyperactivity in some children, but the effects varied. The primary culprits are artificial colors, especially red and yellow, and additives such as aspartame, MSG and nitrites. Taking a conservative look at whether eliminating these from a child’s diet could be beneficial, let’s consider a common sense approach – none of these additives are necessary to the nutritive value of a food and because of the way the food is processed actually remove some of the naturally occurring nutrients. Without going overboard, it’s safe to say that steering clear of processed foods with artificial colorants and preservatives is a wise step, not just for children with ADHD, but for the whole family.
Sugars Some children become hyperactive after eating candy or other sugary foods and drinks, but there is no direct evidence that suggests that sweets cause ADHD. However, since sugar provides “empty calories” and too many sweets can not only prevent us from being hungry for healthy foods at mealtime but is a primary cause of obesity, it just makes sense for sugary foods to be a small part of anyone’s diet. That doesn’t mean an occasional sweet treat is entirely taboo. After reducing the amount of sugar in your child’s diet watch closely to see if ADHD symptoms improve. That can be a way to gauge whether sugar affects his or her behavior.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Some evidence suggests that children with ADHD may have low levels of essential fatty acids. Researchers believe an omega-3 deficiency might contribute to ADHD symptoms because these fatty acids perform a number of functions in the brain, such as affecting transmission of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin and helping brain cells to communicate. Essential fatty acids also fuel basic cell functioning, improve overall immunity, and enhance heart health. By definition, the body cannot make essential fatty acids, so these nutrients must be consumed in the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in salmon, tuna, and other cold-water fish, as well as from some seeds and oils. Increasing the amount of omega-3s in your family’s overall diet, a healthy choice for everyone, may also reduce the symptoms of ADHD in your child.
Micronutrients Deficiencies of particular vitamins or minerals – such as zinc, iron, magnesium, and vitamin B6 – have been documented in children with ADHD. But the results of trials testing whether supplementation with vitamins or minerals alleviates ADHD symptoms have not been consistent. While vitamin or mineral supplements may help children diagnosed with particular deficiencies, there is no evidence that they are helpful for all children with ADHD. ADHD symptoms vary from person to person. Work with your child’s doctor closely if you’re considering vitamin supplements. Warning: avoid mega-doses of vitamin supplements, which can be toxic.
For now the overall consensus is for a sensible approach to nutrition for children with ADHD, the same as it is for all children: eat a diet that emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthful unsaturated fats, low-fat dairy, good sources of protein and avoid sugary and processed foods and drinks. Go easy on unhealthy saturated and trans fats, rapidly digested carbohydrates and fast food. Balance healthy eating with plenty of physical exercise. When you think about it, if you follow this approach, most of ADHD’s potential nutritional “troublemakers” will be reduced or eliminated naturally and your whole family will benefit from a balanced, nutrient-rich diet.
Source: Harvard Health Publications, “Diet and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”
Special thanks to Hart Wylie, PMHNP, of Jackson Psychiatry Group, for reviewing this article for content. Ms. Wylie is a licensed psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner. She graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Nursing. She has also worked for years as a licensed professional counselor.