ADHD Dietary Guidelines

While it's debatable whether diet alone can treat childhood ADHD, many ADHD experts believe that most children with ADHD function best on a diet that is high in protein and low in carbohydrates and simple sugars. Studies of preschool children showed that children who didn't consume a sufficient amount of essential nutrients suffered reduced attention spans as well as intellectual abilities and thinking capacities.

Some Simple Suggestions

By following some general nutrition guidelines, you can feed your child's brain and body the nutrients she needs, and maybe even alleviate ADHD symptoms in the process. Here are some easy things to incorporate into your child's daily diet:

  • Instead of serving three big meals a day, break it up into five or six mini-meals. This will keep your child's blood sugar levels on an even keel and prevent dramatic fluctuations that can lead to mood swings and irritability.

  • Make sure your child avoids eating right before bedtime, especially if she has trouble falling asleep.

  • Have your child enjoy a serving of protein at every meal, including breakfast. Good sources of protein include eggs, fish, meat, cheese, yogurt, and soybeans.

  • Instead of sugary snacks like cookies, crackers, and chips, serve protein-rich snacks like cheese or low-fat yogurt.

  • Make sure your child goes easy on empty-calorie snacks that are high in sugar and fat. This includes practically anything you'd buy in a vending machine, including candy bars, cookies, pies, snack cakes, chips, and crackers.

  • Encourage your child to eat rather than drink her fruit. It's easy for your teen to drink a large glass of orange juice, which is high in sugar, but she'd have trouble consuming an equivalent amount of raw oranges, or four to five oranges.

  • Citric acid can interfere with some kinds of ADHD medications, so ask your doctor about your child's medication. If citric acid is a problem, be sure she doesn't wash down her medication with a glass of orange juice or grapefruit juice. Tangerines and oranges are also high in citric acid.

  • Don't feed your children lots of simple “white” carbohydrates. White bread and white rice break down quickly into simple sugars in the body and give your child the same effect as eating cookies and candy. Replace them with complex carbohydrates like whole grains, brown rice, and beans. Because they take much longer to break down in the body, they help regulate appetite and maintain steady energy levels.

  • Don't skimp on healthy fats. Your child needs omega-3 essential acids and fish oils found in salmon and tuna to maintain brain function, so make sure she eats three servings a week to keep brain cells well nourished.

  • Avoid unhealthy saturated fats found in butter, margarine, and red meat, and focus on healthy amounts of polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats found in fish, olive and canola oil, and nuts.

  • Watch caffeine levels. Caffeine decreases blood flow to your child's brain and may increase ADHD symptoms in some kids and interfere with healthy sleep. Coffee isn't the only caffeine culprit. Tea and hot chocolate also have caffeine, as do many sodas and sports drinks. But some children and adolescents with ADHD do benefit from consuming modest amounts of caffeine, which helps keep them alert. If you're not sure how caffeine affects your child, consult your physician.

  • Don't mix alcohol with ADHD medication. The combination can make teens with ADHD woozy, sleepy, and a hazard behind the wheel.

  • The Bottom Line

    Whether you've decided to try a high-protein diet, adding supplements, or eliminating certain foods from your child's diet, you'll also get the best results if you start small and make one change at a time so you can better monitor the results.

    It may also help to keep a food diary to record how dietary changes affect your child physically, mentally, and emotionally, and to note what effect they seem to have on your child's ADHD symptoms so you can discuss results with your physician.

    Through trial and error, you can determine which foods, additives, preservatives, and supplements increase or diminish your child's ADHD symptoms, and develop a diet that keeps her healthy while avoiding existing problems.

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