Six Diet Tips for ADHD

The most common treatment for ADHD is Ritalin, a powerful drug surrounded by controversy and negative side effects. Even the Physicians’ Desk Reference of Drug Side Effects admits Ritalin is not fully understood as, “The mode of action in man is not completely understood" and this well-respected reference book also states, “…there is no information regarding the safety and effectiveness of long-term treatment in children”.

Thankfully, other theories exist as successful guidelines for managing the symptoms of ADHD. There are many factors considered as pieces in the ADHD puzzle such as food, environment, and media.  Furthermore the symptoms of these disorders are nearly identical to those of low blood sugar (commonly the result of the insulin surge resulting from highly processed, sugary foods). As a food and nutrition expert, I would begin to experiment with diet and behavior modification before adding the stimulant Ritalin to my child’s regime. 

Diet and ADHD

Theories linking attention disorders with diet are nothing new. In the 1970s, Dr. Benjamin Feingold claimed the symptoms of hyperactive behaviors would be cut in half by removing artificial coloring, flavoring, and salicylates. Research has not been able to confirm the effectiveness of this approach however, countless families following Dr. Feingold’s advice do.

In fact, many Americans practice dietary modifications as a means of symptom relief and are confident in their success. Many of these dietary recommendations are found in the USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Americans (whole grains, fruits, vegetables).  Other recommendations are common practice elsewhere. For instance, the United Kingdom banned six artificial food colors in response to research from a September 2007 study in The Lancet.  The study found, “…specific mixtures of food additives might increase hyperactivity in certain children.”

Support Focus with a Healthy Diet

As a dietitian, I can certainly understand how dietary choices may impact our ability to focus as nutrients are essential for a healthy mind and body. Nutrient deficiencies hinder our mind from functioning properly ; our brain relies on thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, copper, iodine, iron, magnesium manganese, potassium, zinc, and essential fats to maintain the energy needed to focus on the task at hand. This is why a balanced diet rich in nutrient-dense whole foods is recommended by the American Dietetic Association, especially for young children whose bodies are still being developed.

The jury is still out on exactly which dietary modifications will help your child overcome his or her symptoms. However, here are a handful of the most common practices which make sense to me: 

1. Whole Foods: Base your diet on nutrient-dense whole foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and lean proteins).    

2. Avoid Sugars and Sweeteners: Read ingredient statements and avoid those listing a sweetener as one of the main ingredients. Sweeteners may be listed as sugar, sucrose, fructose (fruit sugar), lactose (milk sugar), maltose, barley malt, honey, high fructose corn syrup, syrups in general, corn syrup solids, dextran, dextrin, and cane crystal.  

3. Chose Natural Beverages: Offer water in place of sugary or chemical laden drinks. If your child misses the sweet flavors of the latter, experiment by mixing water with sparkling water or simply add a splash of citrus. It may also be fun to serve up a brightly colored fruit and vegetable smoothie to mix things up!

4. Eat More Natural Color: Paint your plate! In most cases, the more vibrant in color your fruits and vegetables are, the more vitamins and minerals they contain. The same can be said for those beautiful brown slices of whole-grain bread. To be sure your bread is truly whole-grain, look for whole grain flour, whole wheat flour, whole oat flour, brown rice flour, or another source of whole grains, just as long as it is listed first in the ingredients.   

5. Cut Out The Chemicals: As you are getting in the habit of reading the ingredient statements, watch out for MSG (monosodium glutamate), artificial sweeteners (aspartame), caffeine, food dyes (Red 40), preservatives, and other chemicals.  

6. Go Dairy-Free: Dairy is yet another controversial topic, though many have found success by eliminating this food group because of the potential effects of hormones, pesticides, or antibiotics. If dairy is a must for your child, I would highly encourage the organic options.  

A Word to Parents of ADHDers

Our role as parents and caregivers is to serve as the voice of reason and expertise for our children (and it would seem that you are already doing just that by reading this article!). I have witnessed success with ADHD when parents offer consistency in their children’s lives, praising them when they are well behaved or do well in class (while recognizing the need to try again when they act out), and offering a nutritious, balanced diet.

Perhaps there is a food sensitivity aggravating your child’s body, or the amount of added sugar is simply too much for their body to effectively metabolize. If you suspect one of the components of your child’s diet, seek consult with a registered dietitian and experiment with an elimination diet to see if you find relief from the change. If not, see how the next change works for your child. Once you are able to identify the best individualized diet, dietary supplements may offer further benefit in your child’s symptom relief.



ADHD Data and Statistics in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from

Today’s Dietitian. Gray Area — Jury’s Still Out on Link Between Artificial Colors and Hyperactivity.  Retrieved from

The Feingold Diet Program for ADHD.  Feingold MD, Benjamin. Retrieved from

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