Can Healthy Eating Help with Child ADHD?

Ongoing Research into Food's Role

What research says about food and child ADHD symptoms.

1 / 6 Ongoing Research into Food's Role

Have you ever wondered whether certain foods might hinder your child's ADHD management? If so, you're not alone. Scientists have researched the effects of nutrition on ADHD for years. Despite a growing body of research, it's still not crystal clear what role food plays in childhood ADHD. Still, if you're wondering whether eliminating or adding certain foods might help with ADHD symptoms—like hyperactivity, sleep disturbances, difficulty focusing, or irritability—read on. Here are some eating habits that are being researched for their effects on ADHD, as well as some early study results.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

Artificial Coloring, Flavorings, and Preservatives

2 / 6 Artificial Coloring, Flavorings, and Preservatives

In the 1970s, researcher Benjamin F. Feingold, MD, found that some foods containing artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives seemed to worsen hyperactivity and other behavioral symptoms. His claims were based on a handful of small studies, and recent research has had conflicting results. But some studies have found that avoiding additives and colorings may help reduce hyperactivity in some kids. Other studies show that some artificial preservatives (sodium benzoate, BHA, and BHT), artificial flavors (vanilla), and artificial sweeteners (aspartame and saccharin) may also make ADHD symptoms worse.

Foods That Contain Salicylates

3 / 6 Foods That Contain Salicylates

Feingold also claimed that foods rich in salicylates—such as almonds, grapes, tomatoes, and cucumbers—might worsen hyperactivity in children with and without ADHD. Once again, subsequent study findings conflicted with Feingold's research. But some experts do think that when children with ADHD have sensitivities or allergies to salicylate-rich foods, it might help to eliminate them. Allergy testing may help pinpoint children who are sensitive to salicylates.

Sugary Foods and Soft Drinks

4 / 6 Sugary Foods and Soft Drinks

Contrary to popular belief, a host of studies have pretty much debunked the myth that sugar causes or aggravates hyperactivity or other symptoms of ADHD. But that doesn't mean that limiting candy, soft drinks, cookies, and sugary treats isn't a good idea that may help your child better manage ADHD. Eating too much of the sweet stuff can cause blood sugar to spike, then crash, making it harder for kids to concentrate and focus. What's more? Kids who fill up on sugary snacks are likely to skimp on healthy foods and fall short on key nutrients.

The "Few Foods" Eating Plan

5 / 6 The "Few Foods" Eating Plan

The "few foods" approach to eating asks parents to eliminate non-salicylate foods from their child's menu, as well as foods with artificial additives. That means no eggs, milk, chocolate, soy, corn, wheat, or legumes. While some studies show an improvement in ADHD symptoms with the elimination of these foods, the improvement has mostly been seen in kids who are sensitive or allergic to these foods. Many experts don't recommend this way of eating because it can eliminate key nutrients unnecessarily. If you think your child has food sensitivities or allergies, talk to your pediatrician about the best eating plan.

Hamburgers and French Fries

6 / 6 Hamburgers and French Fries

Findings from a large 14-year study suggest that a "Western" approach to eating may increase a child's risk of ADHD compared with "healthy" eating. The difference? A Western menu—popular in the United States and other Western cultures—is high in refined grains (white bread, white rice), soda, and foods high in saturated fat, such as red meat, dairy, and fried foods. A healthy eating plan is packed with all the foods you already know boost kids' health—fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean protein choices, such as fish or beans.

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