What Studies Say About Your ADHD Child's Diet & Behavior


Research shows that diet can play an important role in the life of a child with ADHD. Foods containing additives can cause an increase in symptoms while foods rich in protein can alleviate symptoms. Understanding food's role in behavior is key for parents with ADHD children.

How Food Can Affect Your ADHD Child

There's an old adage that says 'you are what you eat,' which in essence means that if you eat healthily you'll feel healthy. If you eat foods high in carbohydrates and fats then you'll most likely feel tired and sluggish. What you eat plays a major role in how you feel and what your activity levels are. This is especially true for children. Food can affect a child's energy levels, concentration levels, mood swings and more. Research shows that food choice can also play a large role in the life of a child with ADHD. Here's a look at past and current studies related to the effect of food on the symptoms of ADHD in children.

Eat healthy.

What Research Reveals

Researchers began studying the correlation of food and ADHD children as early as the 1970s. The results suggest that foods can play a direct role in the behavior of a child with ADHD. Food dyes, food additives, omega-3 fatty acids, and micronutrients have been the focus of such studies. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration acknowledged the results of such research and concluded that certain food components such as artificial food coloring and dyes as well as preservatives may in fact, be linked to behavioral changes in children.

The United Kingdom has also been conducting its own research through a series of experiments involving administering food with dyes and food without dyes to children of different ages. Test subjects included children with and without ADHD. The results revealed a mild but significant increase in hyperactivity among all children that were given foods with food dyes and other preservatives. Children with ADHD experienced even higher levels of hyperactivity. The study also concluded that food was not a direct cause of ADHD but simply enhanced symptoms already present.

Similar studies were conducted by Columbia University and Harvard University. Their research revealed that artificial food coloring did impact a child's behavior. The results also revealed that removing such foods from an ADHD child's diet would only be as half as effective as treating ADHD with drugs such as Ritalin. Research concluded that food plays a part in an ADHD child's symptoms and that controlling the intake of certain dyes and preservatives can lessen those symptoms. However, research also concluded that diet alone cannot control a child's ADHD symptoms.

Dyes are found in a variety of foods.

What Research Does Not Reveal

Although research conducted by numerous universities and branches of the food industry has suggested the food additives such as dyes and sugars can affect a child's behavior, research does not show a direct correlation in diet and ADHD. Researchers at Harvard University concluded that diet alone is most likely not a direct cause of multiple behavioral and cognitive symptoms associated with ADHD in children. In fact, research finds no grounds for supporting extreme diet changes such as eliminating all processed foods as a way to treat or cure children of ADHD symptoms.

Researchers are also quick to point out results of trials and experiments do not reveal food to be a trigger for ADHD symptoms in all children with ADHD. Some children with ADHD were susceptible to the effects of dyes and additives while other children with ADHD were not. So although food can be a trigger, it is not a consistent. Researchers recommend testing children for food sensitivities instead of assuming all dyes, additives, etc. are potential hazards.

Applying Research Results

Food affects growing children whether they have ADHD or not. Research has proven that certain foods can heighten ADHD symptoms in some children, but not all. As a general rule of thumb, parents can assume that what their child eats does play a role in how he or she thinks and acts. The best way to determine what foods play the strongest role in an ADHD child's behavior is to create a well balanced and nutritional diet that all children should follow. Through process of elimination, parents will be able to determine what affects their child's ADHD symptoms and what doesn't. It's important to remember, however, that food is not the only trigger. All aspects of a child's life need to be taken into account.

Foods rich in protein.

Foods to Add to an ADHD Diet

In addition to researching the general relation between food and ADHD, additional studies have been conducted to determine the effects of specific foods on children with ADHD. A variety of foods has been recommended to help ADHD children stay focused and concentrate on the tasks before them.

Protein Rich Foods

Dr. Sandy Newmark of the Pediatric Neurodevelopmental Program at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine believes that diets rich in proteins may be beneficial for ADD and ADHD symptoms. For instance, lean beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, soy and low-fat dairy products are rich in protein and can be used to make neurotransmitters, chemicals that aid in the communication between brain cells. Protein can also help prevent blood sugar spikes, which tends to increase hyperactivity.


Studies have also revealed that foods rich in omega-3 can improve ADHD behavior in the areas of hyperactivity, impulsivity, and concentration. These essential fats have been shown to help decrease symptoms of ADHD. Daily supplements may be recommended for children with ADHD as research also suggests that children with ADHD tend to have lower levels of omega-3 in their blood. The best source of omega-3 is fish.

Foods Rich in Iron

Dr. Newmark also suggests that maintaining iron levels in children with ADHD is critical. In 2004, researchers discovered that children with ADHD had iron levels of 22 compared to non-ADHD children's iron levels of 44. Additional research revealed that ADHD children with higher levels of iron in their system noticed an improvement in symptoms. Be sure to check with your doctor before increasing your child's iron intake as too much iron can be dangerous. Iron-rich foods may include red meat, pork, poultry, seafood, beans, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, and peas.

ADHD Snacks

Everydayhealth.com has developed a list of suggested snack foods for children with ADHD. Snacks include fruits, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole wheat bread, dried fruit, vegetables, humus spread on pitas, and whole wheat crackers or whole wheat pretzels. Nuts are also encouraged.

Making the right food choices.

Food to Eliminate from an ADHD Diet

Foods to avoid are just as important as foods to include in your ADHD child's diet. Research has already shown that eliminating dyes and some preservatives can help decrease ADHD symptoms. Additional foods to avoid as listed on Everdayhealth.com include the following.

Sugary Foods

Foods high in sugar like candy, carbonated beverages, and some juices can cause hyperactivity in children without ADHD. These foods can heighten symptoms for children with ADHD and should be avoided or given in moderation.

Frozen Foods

Frozen fruits and vegetables may not be the best option when trying to provide your child with a well-balanced diet. Frozen foods often contain higher levels of artificial colors. In addition, some research suggests that fruits and vegetables treated with organophosphates used for insect control can actually cause neurological behaviors that imitate ADHD symptoms. If your child already has ADHD, these symptoms may occur at extreme levels.

Energy Drinks

Besides being filled with caffeine, many energy drinks also contain artificial flavors, artificial colors, artificial sweeteners and other stimulants that can mimic or increase ADHD symptoms.

Positive food choices for kids.

Use Caution in ADHD Diets

It's important to be aware of your child's food sensitivities when it comes to food choice especially if your child has ADHD. Foods that can cause a reaction for children with ADHD may include milk, chocolate, soy, wheat, eggs, beans, corn, tomatoes, grapes, and oranges. Through trial and error, parents can develop nutritional diets to help their ADHD child grow while at the same time limiting ADHD triggers. As always, contact your child's physician when considering drastic diet changes.

By Amanda Johnson
January 2017
k-12 parenting tips & tricks

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