There’s a lot of chatter online about which foods might help parents and caregivers manage symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. Separating the good suggestions from the bad ones can be a challenge.
Here, experts reveal the truth about four common ADHD diet myths — and the facts that will empower you to make wise choices about your child’s nutrition.
Myth 1: Sugar Is a Top Cause of ADHD
Fact: The impact of added sugar on ADHD isn’t entirely clear, says Dilip Karnik, MD, a pediatric neurologist at Child Neurology Consultants of Austin in Texas.
Much of the evidence related to sugar and ADHD is anecdotal. “Many parents have told me they see increased impulsivity following consumption of sugary drinks or food in their children,” Dr. Karnik says.
Clinical research findings related to ADHD and sugar have been mixed. For instance, one small study published in January 2022 in BMC Pediatrics showed that unhealthy eating behaviors, including high sugar intake, were more common in children with ADHD than in children without the condition. But a large study published in January 2019 in the Journal of Affective Disorders, which included nearly 3,000 children ages 6 to 11, showed no link between consumption of sucrose — a sweetener commonly found in soft drinks and processed foods — and ADHD.
What is clear: Even though the jury is still out on how sugar affects ADHD, limiting your child’s intake of the sweet stuff is a good idea in general. Added sugars are associated with an increased risk of heart disease among all kids in the United States, according to data published in August 2016 in Circulation.
High sugar intake also has been shown to raise the risk of childhood obesity, which can lead to the premature onset of hypertension and insulin resistance, according to a study published online August 3, 2021, in the journal Children.
Amy Reed, RD, a pediatric dietitian at Cincinnati Children's Hospital in Ohio and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says her recommendations for sugar intake among children with ADHD are no different from her recommendations for children without ADHD — no more than 6 teaspoons, or 25 grams, of added sugar each day. Those amounts are based on a 2016 scientific statement from the American Heart Association, she explains.
If you’d like to help your child consume less sugar, recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics published in April 2019 in the journal Pediatrics suggest that you:
- Read the nutrition label on packaged foods. It will tell you the amount of added sugar in each serving. Also check the ingredients list. Sugar can be listed under many different names, including agave nectar, barley malt syrup, corn syrup, date sugar, dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltodextrin, maltose, molasses, rice syrup, and xylose.
- Serve healthier beverages, such as water and milk in place of sugar-sweetened beverages and fruit drinks, sports drinks, and energy drinks. The Cleveland Clinic suggests trying naturally flavored sparking water or simply adding a few pieces of cut-up fruit to water for sweetness.
To find more enjoyable replacements for foods containing a lot of added sugar, Reed also recommends working with a registered dietitian.
Myth 2: Omega-3 Supplements Can Treat ADHD
Fact: There’s no hard evidence that omega-3 fatty acid supplements are helpful for ADHD symptoms.
In some scientific studies, omega-3 supplements have shown promise in helping manage ADHD, says Karnik. For instance, a review of 16 studies including more than 1,500 kids and young people with ADHD, published in the Journal of Lipids in 2017, found that omega-3 and omega-6 supplementation could be viable additions to traditional ADHD treatment regimens.
Other studies, however, have been inconclusive, Reed notes. What’s more, the studies that have shown benefits of omega-3 supplements have several limitations, including small numbers of participants and short duration. Before omega-3 supplements can be routinely recommended for ADHD, researchers need to conduct larger and longer-term studies.
For those reasons, Reed warns that supplements should never be used in place of standard, evidence-based ADHD treatments such as medications that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
If you think you’d like to have your child try an omega-3 supplement, ask your pediatrician for a recommendation. Also, bear in mind that supplements are not regulated as strictly as FDA-approved medications, and the quality of omega-3 supplements may differ from brand to brand.
Myth 3: Elimination Diets Diminish ADHD Symptoms
Fact: Elimination diets — any diet that involves cutting out certain ingredients or even entire food groups — may do more harm than good, and a review published in November 2017 in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care states there’s no sufficient evidence to show that any food or nutrient-based interventions help treat ADHD.
For ADHD, the most commonly touted elimination diet is the Feingold diet, which involves avoiding all sweeteners, preservatives, artificial colors, flavors, and the ingredient salicylate, according to Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD).
“Many studies [related to elimination diets] did not show a significant difference in outcomes,” says Karnik. “In addition, these strict dietary restrictions may have a negative effect on a child as they feel they cannot freely participate in fun social activities that happen at school, such as a birthday party. Not allowing children to participate in eating cake or cookies could exacerbate social anxieties or isolation.”
Reed agrees, adding that unnecessarily removing major food ingredients like gluten or sugar could mean taking away many nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and whole grain bread.
“I have worked with families that have gone through elimination diets to see if it improves behavior and then by the end, they realize they've had to take away a lot of their children's favorite foods,” explains Reed. “Now they're not eating very well, and their behavior really hasn't improved either.”
RELATED: What’s the Deal With Elimination Diets for ADHD?
Myth 4: Since Diets Don’t Work, My Child Doesn’t Need a Meal Plan
Fact: Many children with ADHD have irregular or impulsive eating habits and need help sticking to a regular eating schedule, which has benefits for both their health and their behavior, Karnik says.
Some ADHD medications can suppress appetite temporarily, Reed explains. Then, when the medication begins to wear off, hunger can come back quite suddenly and intensely. This can lead to binge eating behaviors in children, such as not eating throughout the school day, then eating everything they can once they come home.
What’s more, hallmark ADHD symptoms like hyperactivity, distractibility, and impulsivity can also make eating consistently throughout school days more challenging.
In turn, long periods without eating or drinking make it harder for a child to focus and think clearly, Karnik says. “It is very important that children with ADHD eat healthy foods regularly and keep well-hydrated. Hydration is equally important for proper brain function.”
Have a healthy snack ready after school and stick to a consistent dinner schedule so your child doesn't miss a meal or graze throughout the evening, Reed advises. And at school, consider working with your child’s teachers to form a meal and snack schedule to ensure your child eats regularly throughout the school day.
Fortified nutritional shakes can be helpful for children and teens with ADHD because they can be consumed quickly, Reed adds.
The Bottom Line: What Should Kids With ADHD Eat?
While no fad diet can successfully treat ADHD symptoms, a nutritious and balanced diet can help your child live well with the condition, CHADD says.
Per the U.S. Department of Agriculture (UDSA) Dietary Guidelines for Americans, your child’s diet should be rich in these nutrient-dense foods:
- Whole fruits
- Whole grains, such as whole wheat or whole-grain bread
- Dairy, including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese
- Protein-containing foods like poultry, eggs, lean meats, lentils, nuts, and seeds
- Healthy oils, such as olive oil and other vegetable oils
In addition, USDA experts recommend limiting your child’s consumption of:
- Added sugar
- Saturated fats