ADHD and Diet: Fact vs. Fiction

ADHD_dietBy Vanessa Chrisman, RD, CLE, CHOC clinical dietitian

Learning to care for a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be a daunting task for parents. Families must decide whether to use medications, nutrition or other therapies as treatment.

To help parents make informed decision, here are a few common myths about the relationship between diet and ADHD.

Myth: Consuming sugary foods and drinks causes hyperactivity in children with ADHD.

Fact: While many parents will agree that excessive sugar does indeed make their children hyperactive, there is no conclusive evidence that sugar causes increased hyperactivity in children with (or without) ADHD. Cutting out sugar will not make the ADHD go away. Nevertheless, too much sugar in the diet is unhealthy and it would be wise to limit sugar.

Myth: Following a strict elimination diet will drastically reduce behavioral symptoms of ADHD.

Fact: While there is evidence that some children with ADHD may have sensitivities to artificial food colors, artificial flavorings, preservatives, salicylates and other foods, there is no one elimination diet that has proven effective in the treatment of ADHD. While some children may respond positively to the elimination of certain foods/additives in the diet, others may have no reaction at all. Following a strict diet can be challenging and should be supervised by a registered dietitian.

Myth: Mega-dose vitamins and herbal supplements are recommended for children with ADHD.

Fact: High doses of vitamins have not been shown to be effective and can actually do harm to the body, especially the liver. With herbal supplements, there is not enough research to support their efficacy and safety at this time. In most children, a daily multivitamin is all that is really recommended. Supplementing with omega 3 fatty acids could be helpful as well, but more research is still needed. Before taking any supplement, be sure to talk with your child’s physician first.

Conclusion: As with all children, a healthy well-balanced diet is recommended for children with ADHD. Offering three regular meals plus two to three snacks daily helps ensure that children get a steady stream of energy and nutrients throughout the day. Including foods from all the food groups (with emphasis on fruits; vegetables; whole grains; low-fat dairy products; and lean protein foods like poultry, beans, lentils, fish, nuts and seeds) will help provide all the nutrients that a growing child needs. Optimizing nutrition in a child with ADHD can help complement their treatment and manage their symptoms better.

Learn more about Clinical Nutrition and Lactation Services at CHOC.

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