ADHD diet for kids: best and worst foods for kids with ADHD

ADHD diet for kids: best and worst foods for kids with ADHD

Definition of ADHD

The University of Maryland Medical Center defines Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder as “a neurobehavioral disorder generally characterized by the following symptoms: Inattention, Distractibility, Impulsivity, and Hyperactivity” although other behavioral and comorbidity issues such as defiance and anxiety disorders are present (University of Maryland. 2013).

Currently there is no cure for ADHD, but the symptoms can be managed through a combination of dietary guidelines, medications, and behavior modifications.


Prevalence of ADHD

In their Epidemiology report, The Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Institute states “The mean worldwide prevalence of ADHD is between 5.29% and 7.1% in children and adolescents (<18 years)” (ADHD Institute. 2014).

This number may be higher because the Institute acknowledges variances in reports for different geographical locations where there is little or no available access to adequate reporting criteria as well as cultural differences with respect to medical or psychological interventions.

Adhd diet for kids

Research conducted for two highly restrictive diets, Feingold and Oligoantigenic, indicates that strict diet protocol and modification results in a reduction of ADHD symptoms and that even subtle diet changes are a complementary treatment for children with ADHD.

Authors Millichap and Yee discuss the changing and significant role of diet as an alternative treatment for children with ADHD.  In their article, The Diet Factor in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, they capitulate that diet modifications are difficult to evaluate and that “although prescription of medications for ADHD has shown a steady increase since their introduction in the 1960s, the popularity of various diets has risen and/or fallen in the same time period” (Millichap  & Yee. 2013).

Also see 7 healthy lunchbox ideas for kids

Worst ADHD diet foods

What they do? Many of these chemicals contain contaminants, act as stimulants, interfere with absorption of essential nutrients, attack the nervous system, deplete the immune system, and can affect behavior, learning and health, and should be excluded from an ADHD diet for kids.

Sugar and sugar substitutes such as acesulfame-K, aspartame, saccharin and sucralose often found in candy, junk food, brightly-colored cereals, fruit drinks, and soda.  Sugar may also be associated to glucose intolerance.

Hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated oils

Caffeine, Salt, Chocolate, Dairy, and Gluten

Preservatives (to prevent food spoiling) including butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ)

Salicylates, which are naturally occurring chemicals in variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, jams and juices as well as in aspirin or other medications (see Every Day with ADHD)

Artificial flavor and color such as MSG, sulfites, vanilla, Caramel, and Bromates

Allergy causing foods commonly associated with peanuts, corn, yeast, soy, eggs and shellfish.

Food additives that may increase hyperactive behavior include:

– Sodium benzoate
– FD&C Yellow No.5 (tartrazine)
– FD&C Yellow No. 6 (sunset yellow)
– D&C Yellow No. 10 (quinoline yellow)
– FD&C Red No.40 (allura red)
– FD&C Green No. 3 (fast Green FCF)
– FD&C Blue No. 2 (indigotine)

Note:  Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, FD&C – used in food, drugs and cosmetic.

D&C – used in drugs and cosmetics. (FDA)

ADHD diet for kids: best and worst foods for kids with ADHD

Best ADHD diet foods

What they do?  May ease symptoms of ADHD, have a calming effect on the nervous system, reduce some behaviors, and possibly improve brain function – especially the Omegas and trace minerals, and should be included in an ADHD diet for kids.

Essential Fatty Acids (Omega 3s )– EPA, DHA, and ALA, Omega 6 – Linoleic acid) found in flax seed, salmon, tofu, walnuts, and some algae.

Vitamin B complex found in yeast, liver, whole-grain cereals and breads, rice, nuts, milk, eggs, meats, fish, fruits, leafy green vegetables and soy.

Protein in meat, meat substitutes, eggs, protein bars and protein shakes.

Calcium and magnesium are essential nutrients: calcium from milk and cheese (allergy or intolerance caution), broccoli, kale, and collard greens, spinach, whole grains and fortified cereals.  Beans, peas, nuts, and seeds are additional sources of magnesium.

Trace minerals are micronutrients the body needs daily in small amounts and for children with ADHD child include zinc and iron.  The best sources for zinc include meats and meat alternatives, nuts and seeds, fortified cereals, and shellfish (allergy caution).

Iron sources include dried beans and fruits, eggs (yolks), iron-fortified cereals, liver, lean red meat, oysters, poultry (dark meat), salmon, tuna, whole grains, spinach, broccoli, kale, kale, collard greens, legumes, brown rice, and some nuts.


ADHD Institute. (2014). Epidemiology.  Retrieved from:

Bateman et al. (2004). The effects of a double blind, placebo controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children. Community child health, public health, and epidemiology. Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.  Retrieved from:

Deans, E. (2011). How Does Diet Affect Symptoms of ADHD?  Evolutionary Psychiatry.  Psychology Today.  Retrieved from:

Every Day with ADHD. Salicylates Food Chard (PDF).  Retrieved from:

Feingold Association of the United States. (2013). What is the Feingold Diet? Retrieved from:

Millichap, J.G. & Yee, M.M. (2013). The Diet Factor in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Review Article. American Academy of Pediatrics.  Retrieved from:

Oligoantigenic Diet.  Retrieved from:

Sacks, F. (2014).  Ask the Expert: Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Harvard School of Public Health. Retrieved from:

University of Maryland. (2013). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.  Medical Center.  Retrieved from:

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2004, Revised 2010).  Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives & Colors. International Food Information Council (IFIC) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  Retrieved from: