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ADHD and Diet

Improving ADHD Symptoms With Diet


Updated June 24, 2012

ADHD and Diet

Eating a balanced diet is important for us all. When we eat well, we feel better. We are healthier and happier. Good nutrition is especially important for children who are growing and developing.

A balanced diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk products. It also includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts. Additionally, a healthy diet is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt, and added sugars.

Good nutrition can play a complementary role in a child’s treatment. When a child’s diet is balanced and healthy, his (or her) ADHD symptoms may be a little better controlled.

Jennifer Shu, MD, pediatrician and co-author of Food Fights emphasizes that good nutrition is important for all children, including and maybe especially those with ADHD and other conditions. “Studies show that children with healthier diets tend to behave and perform better at school,” explains Dr. Shu. “Chances are these desired effects extend to the home as well.”

Tips for Healthy Eating

Dr. Shu suggests parents offer their children a variety of foods from as many food groups as possible at each meal or snack. “By doing this, your child is more likely to get a better balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats—all of which the body burns at different rates.”

Hunger surges can also create problems. A child who is hungry is apt to have more difficulty maintaining his concentration, frustrate more easily, and can become more irritable. Eating at regular intervals throughout the day helps keep tummies from growling and feeling empty.

Skipping meals and snacks may also produce low blood sugar levels. As a result, children are more likely to be cranky and moody. Foods that are especially high in processed sugars may spike blood sugar levels. Spikes in blood sugar may result in energy bursts and more active behaviors. Soon after the spike, blood sugar levels often fall resulting in sleepy, cranky, moodiness. This is sometimes referred to as the “spike and crash syndrome.”

“While studies have not shown sugar to cause or worsen the symptoms of ADHD, limiting your child’s intake of added sugar makes sense both from a weight-management standpoint as well as when trying to avoid sudden energy bursts and then falls that processed sugar can provide—the quick energy peaks and valleys can leave kids uncomfortable and possibly unable to focus,” notes Dr. Shu.

A small percentage of children with ADHD have sensitivities to certain foods or food additives, such a colorings or preservatives. “Eliminating these substances from the diet may improve the ADHD behaviors; however, before indiscriminately eliminating multiple foods, be sure to discuss any dietary changes with a physician and/or nutritionist,” says Dr. Shu. “If your child eats a fairly good diet but could use some improvement, ask your pediatrician about using a multi-vitamin supplement while you work on her nutrition.”

Related Reading:
Improve Your Child’s Focus
The Benefits of Exercise
Get a Good Night's Sleep
ADHD and Food Additives


Jennifer Shu, MD. Personal correspondence/interview. 12 Feb. 08

United States Department of Agriculture. “Dietary Guidelines.” 2005.

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