Just How Important is Diet in Treating ADHD?

With nearly 1 in 10 US children now being diagnosed with ADHD, doctors and scientists have been scrambling to find alternatives to medication. Study after study has looked for non-medical treatments for ADHD. Many parents swear by elimination diets – cutting out everything from sugar, to dairy, to preservatives. A recent review paper in the journal Pediatrics explores the connection between diet and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder – and concludes that changes in diet alone aren’t usually enough to treat the condition.

What’s notable here is that the scientific community isn’t necessarily dismissing diet as a contributing factor to ADHD. One of the authors of the paper states that elimination diets can help in “a small percentage of patients.” And Dr. Benjamin Prince, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, recently explained to NPR how he uses diet and medication as part of a complementary treatment.

Among his suggestions?  Kids with ADHD need a diet rich in protein to keep them grounded – starting with breakfast. Between medication that often affects their appetites, and their high level of energy, they can end up hungry, cranky and defiant. The solution? Pack a lunch high in protein and complex carbohydrates that can help keep them going throughout the day.

Prince also notes that some studies have shown a link between ADHD and low levels of long-chain, polyunsaturated fatty acids, also called omega-3s – a type of nutrients found naturally in fish oil. Research on the benefits of omega-3s in treating ADHD has been mixed, but given that they’re good for cardiac health in general, Prince recommends adding more fish or fish oil supplements to kid’s diets.

Australian research has even shown that folk wisdom regarding sugary snacks exacerbating ADHD have some truth to them. The study from the University of Western Australia also found that eating lots of processed foods, red meat and high-fat dairy correlated with higher levels of ADHD. The study concluded that cutting back on (but not necessarily eliminating) those foods might help children focus better and remain calm in class.

Clearly, more research needs to be done on the topic, but current evidence suggests that just “eating right” may not be enough to help most children with ADHD. But that doesn’t mean that healthy eating doesn’t help.


Related stories:

Recess, Not Ritalin, Can Help Kids With ADHD

Should We Medicate 4-Year-Olds With ADHD?

Nearly 1 in 10 Children Now Diagnosed With ADHD


Photo by: Bruce Tuten


Jim Ven
Jim Vabout a year ago

thanks for sharing.

K B.
K B4 years ago

Thanks for the article , following is a petition which asks the schools to educate their teachers and staff about adhd, I've had a few teachers sign because they care ..

Have a good week , love to all

Robert Miles
Robert Miles5 years ago

Note that grass-fed beef, but not the cheaper and more common grain-fed beef, contains the forms of omega-3 that humans need the most. Many types of seafood from cold water also contain them. There are a few vegetarian sources of omega-3, such as walnuts and flaxseed (and the grass the cattle eat), but these are all the ALA type that the human body is very inefficient at converting to the types it needs most.

Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle5 years ago

I use a lot of common sense in my life. Why do we have a rash of ADHD kids nowadays, when we didn't use to? What is in our food that didn't used to be? Additives, sugar, preservatives, coloring! When kids ate simply, they didn't have ADHD. We also have more pollution in the air, water, soil that food is grown in. It just makes sense, and the thought of filling kids with pills (which are the rage in modern America), is abhorrent to me.

Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe5 years ago

When my son was 3 years old, he was diagnosed with ADHD. I noticed that any time he ate anything with a red color to it, it affected him and made it worse. So, we cut all that out of his diet. But, he was still a very active child. He is 27 now and is still very active.

Deborah D.
Deborah D5 years ago

I find that eating foods with artificial dyes and artificial
flavorings affects my concentration.. While not a cure all, it is
definately worth looking into how diet affects ADHD.

Robin R.
Robin R5 years ago

I konw dairy definitely affects my breathing - I never thought about what it could be doing to my mental state! It would be great if diet could fix everything. I just pledged to go vegan for February then reassess how feasable it is premanently. I have ADHD (diagnosed as an adult but it sure explained why I was always in trouble in school) - I wonder if the vegan diet will help.

Kat Head
Katherine H5 years ago

Very interesting! I've also heard that a vegetarian diet helped reduce anxiety and such with autistics. No seriously, it's not just propaganda. :-)

James Campbell
James Campbell5 years ago

Amber B.”Get them off medication, get them off of sugar, processed foods, meat and dairy packed with horemones, etc”

This would certainly help *all* children not just those with ADHD. However there are many more influences which are implicated, some addressable, others not. Genetics is one of the causes, as is environmental pollution, brain injury etc.

There are also many children who are misdiagnosed with ADHD and this group often do benefit from attention to diet, behaviour modification programmes and reduced dependency on medication.

J.L. A.
j A5 years ago

More and more health reasons emerge as reasons for good diets and sufficient exercise--and the organizations (workplaces and schools) responsible for the rules and environments of where we spend most of our waking hours so often are structured in opposition to such human needs; a real conundrum.