At a glance
There are no special diets proven to “cure” ADHD or reduce its symptoms.
There’s no evidence that eliminating certain foods has a direct impact on ADHD symptoms.
All kids can benefit from reducing how much sugar they eat and drink.
For years, parents have had questions about diet plans for ADHD. Sometimes they ask whether kids with ADHD should avoid certain foods. And researchers have been looking into the topic for decades.
But the picture of whether changes in diet, such as reducing sugar or adding supplements, can benefit kids with ADHD (also known as ADD) still isn’t clear. Here’s what we do and don’t know about ADHD and diet.
Supplementing your child’s diet
What you may hear: Some people claim kids with ADHD have lower levels of vitamins and minerals in their blood. So the theory is that giving kids certain vitamins may lessen their ADHD symptoms. There are also claims that herbal supplements are a safer, “natural” alternative to traditional ADHD medication.
The reality: There’s no evidence that kids with ADHD are lacking in vitamins and minerals in their blood. If a child does have deficiencies, supplements may correct that issue. But research doesn’t show that this will impact ADHD symptoms. There’s also no solid research showing that herbal supplements can treat ADHD. The most effective treatment for ADHD is still prescription medication.
At the same time, research has shown that some kids with ADHD have low levels of omega fatty acids. These fatty acids help with brain function. When study participants with ADHD were given omega supplements (like fish oil), a small improvement in symptoms was seen in them.
What to keep in mind: A supplement may be “natural,” but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Herbal supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, and they can have side effects. Some may even make ADHD medications less effective. Omegas can also have side effects, like upset stomach and blood thinning. And not all kids with ADHD have omega deficiencies.
If you suspect these deficiencies, talk to your child’s health care provider. A lab can test your child’s blood levels.
Read more about supplements and ADHD.
Eliminating sugar and other foods
What you may hear: Some people claim kids with ADHD should avoid certain foods. For instance, you may hear that chemical food dyes, additives, and sugar can make kids hyperactive. Or that gluten may make kids with ADHD less attentive. The idea is that cutting out foods that contain these ingredients can relieve ADHD symptoms.
The reality: There’s no evidence to support the idea that eliminating certain foods has a direct impact on ADHD symptoms. But there is a connection between food reactions and kids with ADHD.
Kids with ADHD are more likely to be sensitive or allergic to specific foods. When they eat those foods, they often have a negative reaction. They may feel tired, itchy, nauseated, or anxious. And that can make it harder than usual for them to focus or control their emotions.
Cutting those foods may make kids feel physically better. That in turn may make their ADHD symptoms seem less severe. But it’s not that eliminating foods actually lessens ADHD symptoms.
All kids benefit from reducing how much sugar they eat and drink. But limiting sugar is an especially good idea for kids with ADHD. That’s not because sugar makes them more hyperactive, however. It’s because kids with ADHD are at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
Avoiding sugary foods and sodas can help them stay at a healthy weight and reduce their risk. It’s also wise for kids with ADHD to avoid caffeine. It may seem to increase their focus in the short term. But withdrawal from caffeine can make them particularly irritable.
What to keep in mind: Food allergies are different from food sensitivities. Allergies trigger an immune reaction. This can lead to swelling, itching, trouble breathing and, in some cases, even death. Doctors have very reliable tests for food allergies.
Food sensitivities are less severe. They may cause a wide range of symptoms, including stomachaches and headaches. If your child has negative reactions to certain foods, it’s important to tell the doctor.
Read more about whether kids with ADHD should avoid sugar.
Following special “ADHD diets”
What you may hear: Some people say there are special ADHD diets that can lessen symptoms and even “cure” kids with ADHD.
The reality: A number of diets claim to help kids with ADHD. But there’s little evidence to support them. One, the Feingold Diet, has been studied more than most. This diet cuts out specific foods and additives like artificial dyes, artificial sweeteners, and some preservatives.
There’s limited evidence that following the diet may improve attention and behavior. But a recent study showed that the diet only made a difference in kids with ADHD who also had food allergies or sensitivities.
What to keep in mind: Overall, the best diet for kids with ADHD is the diet that’s best for all kids. It’s well balanced and follows USDA dietary guidelines. A healthy diet includes high-quality proteins like lean meats and poultry, fish rich in omega fatty acids, lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy unsaturated fats. It limits unhealthy saturated and trans fats, rapidly digested carbohydrates, and highly processed and fast food.
Most experts agree that ADHD medication is the most effective treatment for the majority of kids with ADHD. But there are other things you can try that might help your child without posing a risk. Get more information on alternative treatments for ADHD, including exercise and mindfulness.
Understood is not affiliated with any pharmaceutical company.
Omega fatty acids may improve brain function and slightly lessen ADHD symptoms in some kids.
Cutting out foods that kids are sensitive to may help them feel and function better.
Kids with ADHD aren’t lacking in vitamins and nutrients in their blood.
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About the author
About the author
Peg Rosen writes for digital and print, including
Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, PhD is an ADHD/ASD expert and a best-selling author.