Diet Therapy for ADHD Kids
Dealing with a child that has ADHD isn't easy. You have to be on your toes and need more energy than most parents can muster – especially if you have multiple children to manage. Still, you’re reluctant to pump your child with meds. Instead, you’re looking for a more natural approach... like a specialized diet to help your child focus. But where do you start and what can you do?
Strategy #1: A Regular, Healthy Diet
For some children, simply providing a regular, healthy diet that emphasizes certain foods but doesn’t necessarily eliminate anything works wonders. A healthy diet would include:
- High-protein foods like meats, eggs, nuts, and beans foster good brain function and stabilize blood sugar levels; (spikes in blood sugar can lead to hyperactivity).
- Complex carbohydrates like those found in whole grain products, keep blood sugar levels stable as well. They can also help improve sleep if eaten in the evening – a big plus for ADHD kids, many of whom have problems with their sleep cycle.
- Fruits and vegetables provide plenty of fiber for stable energy levels throughout the day. In addition, fruit can satisfy a sweet tooth without the sugar rush.
- Healthy fats, including avocados and nuts (with monounsaturated fat), corn and seeds (with polyunsaturated fat), and fish, like salmon or tuna (with Omega-3 fatty acids) are excellent for the health and function of the brain.
Many parents have found that regular snacking can also help with ADHD symptoms. Healthy snacks options can include:
- Fresh fruits with a peanut butter dip
- Fresh veggies or baked whole grain chips with hummus
- Pan-popped popcorn
- Yogurt with fresh fruit
Strategy #2: A Regular, Healthy Diet Plus Supplements
Many parents try a different dietary approach for ADHD management. Their strategy is to give their child a regular, healthy diet but also to supplement that diet with various herbs, vitamins, minerals, or other natural medications such as probiotics.
If you are planning a supplemented diet for your child, you should:
- Inform your pediatrician and specifically list the vitamins, minerals, or supplements you are planning to use.
- Ask your physician about the possibility of interactions if your child is already on regular medications.
- Consult with a naturopathic doctor, or a physician trained in complementary/alternative medicines for ADHD to find out what herbs or supplements would be best for your child’s particular needs.
- Keep a behavior journal to help evaluate if the supplements appear to be working.
- Be patient! Herbs and other supplements can sometimes take weeks or months to reach therapeutic levels. Do not expect results overnight!
- Discontinue any herb or supplement immediately if your child breaks out in a rash or displays other signs of an allergic reaction. Also report this to your doctor.
Strategy #3: Elimination Diets
This dietary approach seeks to eliminate certain foods (or food additives) that have been implicated in (or are suspected to exacerbate) ADHD symptoms. Elimination diets can vary. The items most commonly eliminated include:
- Food additives. Various food additives have been implicated in (or are suspected of) exacerbating ADHD symptoms – especially artificial colors (red and yellow dyes in particular), aspartame, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and nitrites. Sodium benzoate, a common ingredient in many processed foods, may also be a culprit.
- Sugar. High-sugar foods can cause hyperactivity and pediatricians recommend a low-sugar diet for any child.
- Caffeine. For some ADHD kids, small amounts of caffeine have been shown to be beneficial for typical symptoms. However, for most, it can cause an increase in hyperactivity.
- Conventionally raised foods. Consider going organic since organophosphate pesticides affect the nervous system and have been implicated in behaviors that mimic ADHD.
With growing concerns over sugars and additives, some parents implement a “whole foods” diet to avoid processed foods.
Since hyperactivity can also be a reaction to some food sensitivities, which vary widely from child to child, some parents keep a food journal and eliminate foods that are triggers. For instance, one child may be sensitive to foods from the nightshade family (like potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes) while another will not. Keep a food and behavior journal to see if you spot any trends.
If you do try an elimination diet, discuss this with your doctor or a dietician first to make sure that the restricted diet has enough nutrients to foster your child’s development and growth.
Have you tried a dietary approach to ADHD management? What have you found that works?