Find out what’s the best ADHD diet for kids that will help improve symptoms. Including more than 15 kid-friendly recipes and meal ideas to get you started.
When you are trying to sort through all of the facts about ADHD, you’ll quickly find that managing food and diet for ADHD kids can raise a lot of issues. As a threshold matter, there’s the key issue of just trying to get enough food into your child to begin with. For instance, if your kid takes ADHD medications, you’re likely struggling with that well known side effect of decreased appetite. And, ADHD kids who are high on the hyperactivity scale can expend lots of excess energy. Which also burns through lots of extra calories over the course of the day. Thus needing even more food to replenish. And we all know that almost any hungry child (or grown up) will likely struggle with mood and behavior.
When you’re not worried about trying to pack in enough food, you also have the issue of whether your child is consuming all of the wrong foods. For starters, most of us probably have concerns about excess sugar intake. Kids who consume too much sugar-rich foods can experience wide mood swings related to blood sugar spikes and the subsequent crash. And, the emotional regulation issues often associated with ADHD can potentially magnify these effects.
So, given that at some basic level, food and diet has the tendency to affect mood and behavior, is it possible to use food in a proactive manner to manage ADHD symptoms? That basic question has been the subject of many studies over the years. And opinions vary widely as to what conclusions can be drawn from that research. But, bottom line, evidence supports the idea that a conscious effort to manage ADHD diet for kids can yield an improvement in ADHD symptoms. Whether the relationship between an ADHD diet for kids and ADHD symptoms is a direct one or an indirect may be hotly disputed, but at the end of the day, the results are still there.
Strategies Behind An ADHD Diet For Kids
So what are the options for managing an ADHD diet for kids that will get results?
The most well-known strategies broadly break down into the following categories:
- focusing consumption on certain types of food while eliminating or avoiding others (e.g., increasing protein consumption, decreasing sugar).
- avoiding foods containing certain added food preservatives and artificial colors.
- increasing intake of certain vitamins & minerals and/or fatty acids.
As to the latter two categories, while there are some studies that show small improvements of ADHD related symptoms in some kids, there isn’t evidence that this effect applies to a large number of ADHD kids. And, while some kids show small benefits, this may not necessarily be specifically related to ADHD. But, it’s also noteworthy that specifically as to Omega-3 fatty acids, the FDA has approved a prescription strength Omega-3 compound for use with ADHD. Omega-3 fatty acids occur naturally in fish oils with such fish as salmon and tuna.
As to the first group, opinions vary as to how effective such approaches are. And they also vary as to the reasons why some ADHD kids may see positive results. But overall, this approach has the most support in existing science. Of all of the various approaches to an ADHD diet for kids, the ones that have the most scientific support are the ones based on limiting consumption to certain preferred groups of food while eliminating or avoiding others.
The Split Views on ADHD Diet For Kids
On the one hand, the experts over at Understood.com seem to be highly skeptical of ADHD strategies based on food. For instance, in ADHD and Diet: What You Need to Know, the author writes that there is no evidence that eliminating certain foods has a direct impact on ADHD symptoms. But notes that all kids benefit from reducing sugar.
Notably, this expert opines that while there no direct connection between ADHD symptoms and food, some ADHD kids are more likely to have food allergies or food sensitivities. And that the reactions caused by those sensitivities (such as itchiness or anxiety) can make it harder than usual to control focus or emotions. Thus appearing like the food is directly impacting the ADHD symptoms. But the connection is indirect rather than direct.
Similarly, in Should Kids With ADHD Avoid Eating Sugar?, the expert casts much shade on the notion that sugar generally affects kids’ behavior and also notes that there’s no evidence that food-based strategies will have a meaningful difference as to the symptoms for most ADHD kids. But, this expert also agrees that some subset of ADHD kids who have food allergies and food sensitivities may experience improved ADHD symptoms with a changed diet.
In a different corner, many of the experts featured at ADDitudemag.com endorse a range of food-based/nutrition-based strategies. See, for example, The ADHD Food Fix. And these experts explain that benefits to an ADHD diet for kids that increases certain vitamins and minerals such as zinc, iron, and fatty acids.
Food Sensitivities and ADHD Elimination Diets
Although there’s disagreement as to how an ADHD diet for kids and ADHD symptoms may be linked, there’s some common ground on the idea that ADHD kids who have food allergies or food sensitivities can experience improved ADHD symptoms if those allergies or sensitivities are properly managed. And, there’s evidence that a sizeable segment of ADHD kids fall into this group. Perhaps as many as 60-65%.
For many parents, whether the connection is direct or indirect likely won’t matter. If eliminating certain foods leads to improved ADHD symptoms, that’s the result that matters.
It’s a relatively straight-forward process to figure out whether your kid has food allergies. You go to a medical office and get tested. But, with food sensitivities, it’s not that obvious. So, how do you track down food sensitivities?
You can start by implementing a simple DIY elimination diet like one described in this article: Eggs, Dairy, Nuts, and Soy: Testing for Food Sensitivities with an ADHD Elimination Diet. This is a great article to read if you suspect that your child has food issues affecting her ADHD. It explains in simple terms the difference between allergies and sensitivities and sets out options for figuring out if your child has food sensitivities.
Best ADHD Diet For Kids: Key Principles
So, for those experts who believe that food management can play an effective role in improving ADHD symptoms (with or without food sensitivities), are there any consensus principles?
The common, non-controversial points:
- Focus on planning a balanced diet that avoids blood sugar spikes throughout the day.
- Focus on meals that are rich in protein, complex carbohydrates (like fruits and vegetables), and fiber.
- Limit or avoid sugar.
- Limit or avoid simple carbohydrates that the body quickly transforms into sugar (like white bread).
- Avoid caffeine.
- If suspect food sensitivities, look at limiting or avoiding dairy, wheat (and other gluten-containing foods) and possibly soy.
SUGGESTIONS FOR RECIPES AND MEAL PLANNING
Quinoa Hits All The High Marks
One great food that hits all of the best principles listed above is quinoa. If you haven’t incorporated it into your family meals yet, give it a try! It is a grain that’s high in protein and fiber and many other great health benefits.
Some tasty quinoa-based recipes to get your started:
Turkey Taco Quinoa Skillet (Spoonful Of Flavor)
Cheesy Quinoa Broccoli Casserole (The Chunky Chef)
Salmon Quinoa Patties (Bobbi’s Kozy Kitchen)
Quinoa Risotto (Beauty Bites)
This recipe makes one serving. So you’ll need to multiply as needed for your family.
HIGH PROTEIN BREAKFAST OPTIONS
Starting the morning off with a high protein breakfast can help set the stage for better management of ADHD symptoms throughout the day. First, our bodies use protein to make neurotransmitters in the brain. And, among other things, neurotransmitters help the cells in your brain communicate with one another. So, a protein-rich breakfast can help get those processes warmed up for the day. And, protein also level out blood sugars throughout the day and help prevent spikes.
High Protein Chocolate Banana Muffins (TrinaHolden.com)
20 High Protein Breakfasts for Kids Without Powders (The Organized Mom)
This is a collection of 20 simple ideas for making high protein breakfasts from items you most likely already have in your kitchen.
10 Kid-Friendly High Protein Breakfasts for Back To School (Afropolitan Mom)
This collection of 10 ideas will inspire folks who are looking for some breakfast recipes that are a little more out of the ordinary.
Ideas For Complex Carbs & Fiber
Compared to simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates require more work to process, and this slows down the rate at which sugars are released into the bloodstream. A more leveled release of sugars throughout the day will lead to better behavior control.
Kale: A Great Place To Start
Kale, the epitome of a green leafy vegetable. It also contains small amounts of protein and fiber.
One of all time most successful introduction of vegetables in our house has been kale chips. We first introduced them as “Leprechaun Chips.” Note: we had best results using coarse sea salt. The internet is filled with a wide variety of recipes for kale chips. This one is simple with a minimal amount of ingredients.
Sea-Salted Kale Chips (Live Eat Learn)
Kid-Friendly Ideas For Incorporating More Fruits & Vegetables
Greek Yogurt Zucchini Muffins (Chelsea’s Messy Apron)
DIY Go Gurt (Make The Best Of Everything)
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Low Sugar Treats
All of the good work done by protein, complex carb and fiber can be quickly wiped out with one high sugar processed treat. Also, eating too much sugar (which has little independent nutritional value) decreases the opportunities for consuming important vitamins and minerals that every child needs. And, long term, excess sugar consumption has been linked to many adverse health effects like obesity, hypertension, and diabetes.
Strawberry energy bites (My Kids Lick The Bowl)
My Kids Lick The Bowl
Kinder milk slice (Sugar Free Londoner)
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IDEAS FOR KID-FRIENDLY DAIRY FREE/GLUTEN FREE MEALS
Chicken fingers and pizza often rank high on the list of kids’ favorite foods. Here are two healthier options. And, these will be great if you are exploring the world of food sensitivities.
Paleo Chicken Fingers (My Recipe Magic)
Deep Dish Pizza Bites (Mama Knows Gluten Free)
Overall, the issue of whether food-based strategies can be used to treat ADHD symptoms generates quite a bit of controversy. Although implementing a healthy ADHD diet for kids won’t cure their ADHD, it can lead to better management of ADHD symptoms. But, experts who believe that food and nutrition can be a key component to managing your child’s ADHD symptoms caution that this should not be a stand-alone strategy. Rather, it should be part of a comprehensive treatment plan.