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ADHD Diet for Kids

By August McLaughlin ; Updated July 18, 2017

ADHD, or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is the most common developmental disorder diagnosed among children. Its primary symptoms include trouble paying attention, hyperactivity and impulsivity that interferes with daily life. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, various diets are available as supplemental or primary treatment for children diagnosed with ADHD, and some doctors have found that food allergies contribute to symptoms. Dietary changes should not be pursued without the approval and supervision of a trusted medical professional.


The first ADHD diet was developed in the 1970s by Benjamin Feingold, who believed that artificial food additives and salicylates, a natural chemical in fruits and vegetables, were primary culprits of ADHD and learning disabilities in children. Since then, a variety of dietary programs have come about that eliminate particular foods, such as added or artificial sugars, and encourage others, such as protein or whole grains.


Diets for ADHD include elimination diets, high protein diets and overall healthy eating plans. During elimination diets, particular foods that are thought to cause or exacerbate symptoms are eliminated. Such foods might include gluten (a wheat protein), dairy, sugar and/or food additives. Foods may be gradually reintroduced once symptoms lessen to see which food caused the problems. High protein diets encourage protein intake from poultry, dairy products, fish, legumes and/or cheeses, under the premise that concentration abilities are enhanced by protein. Overall healthy eating plans encourage a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein foods and healthy fats.


According to Mayo Clinic child psychiatrist John E. Huxsahl, M.D., there is no scientific evidence that food additives cause ADHD in children. However, ongoing studies show that particular food coloring and preservatives may exacerbate symptoms for children who have ADHD. More research needs to be done to determine what additives are problematic. Researchers in the Netherlands found that an elimination diet led to a significant decrease in ADHD symptoms among children ages 3 to 7. Some doctors claim that removing allergens reduces ADHD symptoms. Because research is ongoing and results are mixed, definitive conclusions regarding the effectiveness of ADHD diets are yet to be established.


Before you begin an ADHD diet for your child, consider all potential ADHD treatment options and whether dietary changes are realistic for your child and your family. An elimination diet poses emotional challenges for a child, as foods he is accustomed to eating likely will be restricted. Eating at restaurants and at social events, such as birthday parties and sporting events, also may be difficult, as most commercially prepared foods contain some kind of preservative or other additive. Diets that restrict dairy or wheat-based products may reduce intake of important nutrients. If food groups are to be eliminated, seek alternate sources of these nutrients. Seek approval and guidance from a trusted medical professional who can lead you and your child down the appropriate path.

Practical Suggestions

Dr. Huxsahl suggests a healthy, balanced diet for children with ADHD that incorporates plentiful fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, such as omega-3s and flax seeds. A diet of this nature supports physical wellness, provides an array of helpful vitamins, minerals and nutrients and is an optimal diet for most individuals, with or without ADHD. If your child develops symptoms in response to particular foods, have her avoid them. Focus on increasing healthy foods rather than merely on eliminating less healthy items. Treat sugary desserts and other "treats" as occasional or modest-size indulgences. For best results, involve your whole family in healthy eating ventures, and do your best to make enjoyable as well as nutritious. Seek a doctor's approval before partaking in any dietary change.

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