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Healthy Foods for Kids With ADHD

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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ADHD: A Very Brief History

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) first became an officially recognized diagnosis by the medical community in the late 1980s. Before then, it was referred to by various names—Attention Deficit Disorder With and Without Hyperactivity (early 1980s), Hyperactivity (1970s), and Hyperkinetic Reaction of Childhood (1950s-1960s). Pediatricians and children’s health care specialists have known of the condition for over 200 years. However, the definition of ADHD currently in use was developed in 2000 and published in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. The prevailing opinion among medical scientists is that ADHD is a neurological disorder, although this conclusion is the topic of much heated debate between doctors, parents and child healthcare professionals.[1]

ADHD and Diet

In the U.S., the most common treatment for ADHD is medication. However, since the 1970s, many parents and doctors have taken a variety of approaches to identifying the cause and pursuing the treatment of ADHD. Of these alternative approaches, those involving diet are the most common. Unfortunately, they are also the ones that have the least scientific data to back them up. In 2012, a pair of pediatricians at the Children’s Memorial Hospital Department of Pediatrics in Chicago, Illinois, decided to survey the various diet-based treatments for ADHD in order to determine which ones work, which ones don’t and which ones fall somewhere in between.[2]

Basing their study on scientific papers published by reputable medical journals, Dr. J. Gordon Millichap and Clinical Nurse Practitioner Michelle M. Yee reviewed the following diet types:

  • The Supplement Diet – This diet mostly involves the addition of vitamin supplements that contain Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.
  • The Additive and Salicylate-Free Diet (aka The Feingold Diet) – This diet involves the complete exclusion of food coloring, food additives and natural foods that are high in salicylates.
  • The Elimination Diet – This diet involves the elimination of all foods that most commonly produce allergies in children, and then re-introducing them until the food that increases an ADHD response is found.
  • The Sugar- and Aspartame-Free Diet – This diet involves the elimination of sugar and the synthetic sweetener, Aspartame.
  • The Ketogenic Diet: First developed in the 1920s to treat patients with epilepsy, this is a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet.

The Results: Which Diets Have the Most Beneficial Effects on ADHD?

Of the diets surveyed by Millichap and Yee, the first three—The Supplement Diet, The Additive and Salicylate-Free Diet, and The Elimination Diet—were all found to have positive effects on the symptoms of ADHD.  Of those three, the Elimination Diet had the largest measurable effect. Surprisingly, the scientific data showed that high volumes of sugar did not have a negative effect on cognitive function, and only a small group of children displayed increased symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity after loading up on sugar. While this might surprise most parents who’ve watched their children go a little bonkers after too much birthday cake or Halloween candy, those same studies did report an increased aggression in children on days when overall sugar intake was high. The results on the Ketogenic Diet were not significant enough to discuss in detail.

As working professionals in the field of children’s health, Dr. Millichap and Nurse Lee concluded that the best and most practical diet for kids with ADHD is a balanced, healthy diet plus daily doses of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acid supplements.

Even though the Additive and Elimination diets have been shown to help with ADHD symptoms, for most families they are too restrictive, and for busy families they are almost impossible to implement and maintain successfully.

Information for Parents: Foods to Include and Foods to Avoid for Kids with ADHD

In summary, Millichap and Yee recommend that children with ADHD avoid the following foods:

  • Fast Foods
  • Red Meat
  • Processed Meats
  • Potato Chips
  • High-Fat Dairy Products
  • Soft Drinks

Instead of foods on the list above, Millichap and Yee recommend that a healthy diet for children with ADHD should be based on generous amounts of the following foods:

  • Fish (not fried)
  • Vegetables
  • Tomatoes
  • Fruits
  • Whole Grains
  • Low Fat Dairy Products

[1] Lang, et al. “The History of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders. December 2010. (2:4) pp. 241-255.

[2] Millichap and Yee. “The Diet Factor in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder” Pediatrics. January, 2012. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/01/04/peds.2011-2199.full.pdf

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