One piece of improving mental health that sometimes gets overlooked is diet. A healthy diet is important for anyone who wants optimal mental health, but especially for children, whose brains and bodies are developing and in need of the proper mix of nutrients. Most parents would agree that they want to feed their child the best food possible. However, it can be hard to tell what the best food actually is, because often we are surrounded by conflicting messages about whether things are good or bad.
Today I’m going to break down some of the latest research for you regarding nutrition and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), to cut through all the confusing messages you hear. I hope this gives you some clarity on the best nutrition for your child. While the research does not suggest that poor nutrition causes ADHD, it does suggest that good nutrition can improve symptoms for kids with ADHD. And many of these recommendations can be good for any child regardless of whether they have ADHD. A healthy diet can lead to improvements on many fronts, but I’ll save that for another post.
First of all, the most important thing you can do is to reduce sugar in your child’s diet and be sure they get a good mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fats at every meal. While there is no evidence that sugar causes ADHD, it can definitely exacerbate hyperactivity. Eating a balanced diet that is low in sugar will almost always have positive effects on your child’s mood and behavior, because it evens out blood sugar levels over the day and prevents energy spikes and crashes. In addition, quality proteins, fats, fruits, and vegetables will be much better for your child’s overall physical and mental health than a diet high in processed carbohydrates and sugar.
What You Can Do: Start with breakfast. What’s your child eating now? If, for example, it is a Pop-tart, juice, or even nothing at all, switch it out for eggs and fruit, yogurt, or (low sugar) cereal with milk. (Although juice seems healthy, it’s full of sugar and doesn’t have the fiber that whole fruit has. So, replace juice with water or water down your child’s juice. And soda is NEVER a good idea for children regardless of whether it’s diet or regular.) Next, look at the other meals your child eats, and see what swaps you can make to improve them.
2. Get Rid of Food Additives
Food additives (such as artificial colors and preservatives) have recently been in the news for their link to attention and hyperactivity. The latest research suggests that certain artificial colors and preservatives cause higher levels of hyperactivity in kids with ADHD, although the effect may be small. In fact, Europe has already placed warning labels on products containing any of six artificial colors because of their negative effects on attention and activity in children. The FDA met in 2011 to discuss this possibility in the US, but decided more research is needed before they take the step of warning labels or banning certain additives. But don’t let that stop you from making smart choices about these additives.
What You Can Do: Read food labels and avoid anything containing the following ingredients: Blue #1, Blue #2, Green #3, Red #3, Red #40, Yellow #5 (Tartazine), Yellow #6, and sodium benzoate. Click here for lists of common food products that may contain each of these additives.
3. Add in Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
Several recent studies have shown that Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in certain types of fish as well as fish oil, can improve hyperactivity, inattentiveness, and overall behavior in kids with ADHD. Although these studies are fairly small, the trend is consistent in this direction. The only catch is that it may take at least three months of adding in Omega-3s to notice any effects.
What You Can Do: Feed your child more fish rich in Omega-3s, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna. Foods such as spinach, wheat germ, walnuts, and flaxseed also contain Omega-3s. You may also wish to supplement your child’s diet with fish oil capsules.
4. Eat More Zinc
Zinc has been found to reduce impulsivity and hyperactivity in children with ADHD, although it does not appear to have an effect on inattention. Therefore, if your child has the hyperactive/impulsive subtype of ADHD, it will likely be beneficial to add in zinc to their diet.
What You Can Do: Feed your child more food that is rich in zinc, such as oysters, red meat, dairy, beans, and nuts. A zinc supplement may also be helpful.
5. Eat Iron-rich Foods
Interestingly, more research is coming out that many people with ADHD have low iron levels in their brain. It makes sense, therefore, that adding more iron to their diet would help improve their symptoms. Only a few studies have looked at this, but they have all been encouraging. It appears that iron can have beneficial effects for some children with ADHD.
What You Can Do: Feed your child more iron-rich foods, such as red meat, egg yolks, spinach, raisins, and beans. An iron supplement may also be helpful.
Final Note: Every child is different. Think of this as an experiment. Try out these changes for about a month, and pay attention to any differences in your child. You may even want to make the changes one at a time in order to know which change causes effects in your child. After several weeks, add that food back in (or stop the supplementation) and see how your child acts. For example, cut out sugar in your child’s diet for a month and see what changes in their behavior you can see. You could even ask their teacher to give you feedback as well on how their behavior changes in the classroom. Although this process may take a while, this is the best way to understand what works best for your child.
Dodig-Curkovic, K. et al. The role of zinc in the treatment of hyperactivity disorder in children. Acta Medica Croatica, Vol. 63, October 2009, pp. 307-13.
Gailliot, M. T. and Baumeister, R. F. The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control. Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol. 11, November 1, 2007, pp. 303-27.
Konofal, E., Lecendreux, M., Deron, J., Marchand, M., Cortese, S., Zaim, M., Mouren, M.C., Arnulf, I. (2008). Effects of iron supplementation on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. Journal of Pediatric Neurology, 38(1): 20-26.
McCann, D. et al. Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet, Vol. 370, November 3, 2007, pp. 1560-67.
Sinn, N., Bryan, J. (2007). Effect of supplementation with polyunsaturated fatty acids and micronutrients on ADHD-related problems with attention and behaviour. Journal of Development and Behavioral Pediatrics, 28(2): 82-91.