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Watching a child struggle with attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) can be heartbreaking for parents who want nothing more than to help their child. Children with ADD/ADHD may have enormous difficulty sustaining attention, performing in school, maintaining self-esteem, controlling their impulsive behaviors, and getting along with others. In the United States, 11% of children ages 4 to 17 have been diagnosed with this condition, a 42% increase since 2003; and 6.1% take medication, the most common conventional treatment. Fortunately, new research is validating effective treatments that can be used as alternatives or complements to conventional care, including an ADHD diet for kids. Many children with ADD/ADHD have nutritional deficiencies or strikingly low intakes of important brain nutrients. In addition, these kids tend to eat lots of empty calories and have intolerances to specific foods and artificial food additives.
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A Nutritional Solution
The ADHD diet for kids presented here is based on the latest research showing how dietary changes and improvements in nutrition can lead to dramatic improvements in ADD/ADHD symptoms. The diet works in two important ways:
1) It maximizes the intake of important brain nutrients and nutrients found to be low in children with ADD/ADHD.
2) It temporarily eliminates the foods implicated in ADHD exacerbation.
After a period of time, the restricted foods can be slowly and carefully added back into the diet, followed by a period of close observation. If ADD/ADHD symptoms do not reappear or worsen, that food can potentially be eaten again on a semi-regular basis.
Food Intolerances and ADD/ADHD
ADD/ADHD is now believed to be caused by genes interacting with environmental factors, including nutritional and dietary factors. One of the most important of these dietary factors is intolerance to certain foods as well as to artificial food additives. Numerous studies have demonstrated that elimination diets which restrict one or more of the most common foods and/or food additives to which children with ADD/ADHD are intolerant (such as sugars and artificial colors) result in improvements in ADD/ADHD symptoms.
Some children show partial improvements with an elimination diet, while others are completely cured. A review of 35 studies concluded that approximately 33% of children with ADD/ADHD improve with an elimination diet. The actual percentage of children whose ADD/ADHD symptoms improve with an elimination diet is likely a lot higher than 33% given that many of the studies examined were based on the elimination of only one specific food, such as artificial colors. A more comprehensive elimination diet, especially one that focuses on boosting brain nutrients in addition to restricting potential problem foods, would likely lead to substantial improvements in even more children.
Nutrient Deficiencies and ADD/ADHD
ADD/ADHD is considered a developmental disorder of the nervous system (neurodevelopmental disorder). Nutrition plays an absolutely vital role in nervous system development and function. Many children with ADD/ADHD have been found to have higher rates of certain nutritional deficiencies. Research demonstrates that individuals with ADD/ADHD have reduced levels and/or improper metabolism of vitamins B6, vitamin D, zinc, iron, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids.[3-5] Children with ADD/ADHD may benefit from increasing their intake of foods rich in these nutrients. This means eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fresh meat and seafood, eggs, nuts and seeds, while reducing intake of empty calories like sugar, refined carbohydrates, and trans-fats/hydrogenated oils.
The ADHD Diet for Kids
These foods should be strictly avoided for two weeks:
- Gluten. All foods containing wheat, rye, and barley, including bleached flour, enriched flour, durum, emmer, spelt, farina, farro, graham, Kamut®, triticale, einkorn, non-gluten-free oats, and malt.
- Dairy. All foods containing milk or milk ingredients, including casein and whey.
- Sugar. All foods containing added sugar, including cane sugar, sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, high fructose corn syrup, cane juice, dextrin, maltodextrin, fruit juice concentrate, Sucanat, agave, etc. (raw honey and maple syrup may be used in small amounts)
- Caffeine. Soda, tea, coffee, chocolate, energy drinks, guarana, yerba mate, kola.
- Artificial food additives. Food dyes, MSG, sodium nitrate and nitrite, artificial sweeteners, benzoates (BHT, BHA), artificial flavors.
- Optional foods to avoid: Eggs, soy, peanuts, corn, and yeast.
Meanwhile, to obtain optimal levels of brain nutrients, these foods should be eaten in abundance and included in an ADHD diet for kids:
- Fruits, especially berries for brain-boosting polyphenols; bananas for vitamin B6
- Vegetables, especially leafy green vegetables for magnesium and iron (consider a daily kid-friendly green smoothie)
- Fresh meats, fish, and seafood, especially fatty fish like salmon for omega-3 fats and vitamin D; beef and lamb (unprocessed, preferably grass-fed) for iron and zinc; shellfish for zinc; and tuna, chicken, and turkey for vitamin B6
- Nuts and seeds (except peanuts), especially pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and cashews for magnesium, iron, and zinc
- Legumes (except soy), especially for iron
- Whole grains (gluten-free), especially quinoa for magnesium and zinc
- Extra virgin olive oil, avocado and coconut oil (for brain-boosting polyphenols and fats).
After two weeks, reintroduce only one new food at a time. Challenge only single foods at a time (e.g., pasta not pizza, or milk not ice cream). Have your child ingest a serving of that food twice in the same day and then wait two days to see if your child has a reaction. If you are unsure if your child had a reaction, retest the same food in the same manner. Don’t challenge a new food if your child is still having a reaction. Keep a record of the food challenged and your child’s symptoms and behavior, such as mood swings and irritability.
The two-week elimination and subsequent challenge phase of the ADHD diet for kids is not always easy for parents or children, but it is only for a short period of time and the potential information it can provide is invaluable. Generally, when a child needs to make major dietary changes, it does require the family’s support. Consider, for example, having the whole family go sugar-, gluten-, and/or dairy-free for the two -week elimination period, while incorporating more veggies into meals and snacks.
Before starting the diet, you will definitely need to plan ahead and stock the kitchen. Consider making some trial meals and snacks to discover what your child enjoys. Buy the food you need in advance and make some food that your child can eat quickly, such as cut up fruit and chicken. Plan some meals and make sure to cook enough for leftovers.
For an excellent outside resource on the elimination diet, see Whole Life Nutrition’s website and consider getting your hands on a copy of their book, The Elimination Diet: Discover the Foods That Are Making You Sick and Tired–and Feel Better Fast. While their version of the elimination diet is not specifically for children with ADD/ADHD and is more comprehensive than this ADHD diet for kids, it is an invaluable resource and highly applicable.
Additional Nutrients as Supplements
Consider giving your child a multivitamin and an omega-3 (EPA/DHA) supplement, as well as a B-vitamin supplement that contains the active forms of B6 (pyridoxal-5-phosphate), B12 (methylcobalamin) and folate (5-MTHF). Children with ADD/ADHD have been found to have genetic errors that make it difficult to utilize vitamin B6 and to convert vitamins B12 and folate into their active forms, causing disturbances of neurotransmitter systems inherent in ADHD.[5,7] Supplementing with pyridoxal-5-phosphate, methylcobalamin, and 5-MTHF, rather than pyridoxine, cyano-or hydroxycobalamin, and folic acid, the more commonly supplemented forms of these B vitamins, is recommended to better overcome these impairments. The multivitamin should contain zinc as citrate or glycinate, not as oxide, and should be taken as directed on the label. The omega-3 supplement should contain both EPA and DHA and also should be taken as directed.
Take these steps today to help your child with ADD/ADHD. While there’s rarely a panacea, few parents know about the profound effects an ADHD diet for kids can have on a child’s function, learning and behavior.
Originally published in 2014, this post is regularly updated.