Updated: Aug 22, 2020

Did you know that in 2016 the CDC reported that 6.1 million American children had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD)? That’s a 43% increase since 2003.

As parents and families begin noticing the signs, it’s common to look for treatments and ways for managing symptoms. The most common being medication and behavioral therapy. However, one thing that doesn’t get enough attention is diet. By following a proper nutrition plan, parents can help their children control symptoms of attention deficit. Below is a list of some of the key food items parents you should d look to incorporate into their children’s diet as well as avoid.



Overall most people should be limiting simple carbohydrates, like candy, corn syrup, honey, sugar, and products made from white flour, white rice, and potatoes without the skin. This may be even more important for children with ADHD. Several studies suggest that some children who have ADHD are “turned on” by copious amounts of sugar. One study concluded that the more sugar hyperactive children consumed, the more destructive and restless they became. And another study conducted at Yale University indicated that high-sugar diets can increase inattention in some kids.

So, what can you do? For starters, try to avoid things like “fruit” drinks that are higher in sugar than 100% fruit juice. Also read food labels carefully looking for hidden sugars like high-fructose corn sweetener, dehydrates can juice, dextrin, dextrose, maltodextrin, sucrose, molasses, and malt syrup.

If your child has a sweet tooth, try to replace some of their go-to snacks with whole fruit options. While fruits still contain sugar, if eaten whole the fiber in them will allow for the sugars to be digested more slowly and a more gradual and sustained blood sugar release.


Several studies suggest that some children with ADHD are adversely affected by food additives. One of which recently published in The Lancet indicates that artificial food coloring and flavors, as well as the preservative sodium benzoate, make some kids without ADHD hyperactive. As much as we enjoyed them growing up, this means saying good bye to cereals like Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms, and replacing them with healthier low sugar options like Cheerios. Parents should also swap out soft drinks and fruit punches, which often have artificial color and flavors, with 100% fruit juice.


Not all healthy foods are created equal and, in some cases, can be considered an allergen. If your child is sensitive to such allergens, they may affect their brain functions and trigger hyperactivity or inattentiveness. Below is a list of the top eight food allergens. While it may unnecessary to eliminate these foods all together, tracking connections between food and behavior will help identify foods that need to be eliminated.

  • Wheat

  • Milk

  • Peanuts

  • Tree nuts

  • Eggs

  • Soy

  • Fish

  • Shellfish




Without protein, the body can experience surges in blood sugar, which can increase hyperactivity. Protein rich foods are also used by the body to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals released by brain cells to communicate with each other. Foods rich in protein including lean beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, soy, and low-fat dairy products can have beneficial effects on ADHD symptoms.

Looking for ways to incorporate more protein into your child’s diet? Here are some ideas.

  • Top waffles with melted cheese or ham and cheese, instead of syrup or fruit.

  • Spread peanut butter on apple slices, a halved banana, or celery sticks.

  • Fill a breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, black beans, and cheese.

  • Spread a toasted, whole-grain bagel or toast with natural peanut butter or another nut butter, such as almond or hazelnut. Adding a dab of all-fruit jam is just fine.

  • Wrap a slice of turkey bacon around a firm-ripe banana; broil or grill until the bacon is thoroughly cooked.

  • Sauté lean, breakfast sausage patties with pieces of diced apples.

  • Swirl crushed fruit or all-fruit jam into plain yogurt and top with dry, whole-grain cereal or chopped nuts.

  • Fill an omelet with chopped or sliced fresh fruit or spreadable fruit.

  • Serve tuna or chicken salad, sloppy joe's, chili, or baked beans over toast.

  • Offer eggs and a smoothie. To save time, make hard-boiled or deviled eggs the night before.

  • Toast a slice of whole-grain bread and add a little whipped butter or margarine and a dab of all-fruit jam; milk.

  • Serve whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk, lean meat from last night’s dinner (pork chop, chicken), and orange sections.

  • Top plain yogurt with fresh fruit or mix in oatmeal.

  • Offer a grilled-cheese sandwich made with whole-grain bread and two-percent cheese.

  • Blend up a homemade instant breakfast shake or make sausage patties (see recipes, left sidebar).

  • Serve a veggie omelet with a bran muffin.

  • Offer mixed nuts, fresh fruit, and a glass of milk — a great breakfast for kids that graze.


Once you’ve minimized the simple sugars, the next thing is to look for the complex carbohydrates. These starches are broken down more slowly and provide a steadier supply of energy needed to help focus. Examples include oatmeal, yams, brown rice, sweet potatoes, and 100% whole wheat bread and pasta. Eating the right amount of complex carbohydrates can also have a calming effect in those with ADHD by increasing the levels of serotonin.

Examples of a complex carbohydrate meal or snack include oatmeal and a glass of milk, and peanut butter on a piece of whole grain bread.


Omega-3s are essential fats found in cold-water, fatty fish such as sardines, tuna, and salmon. These fats are believed to be important for normal brain function and nerve cell function and have also shown to have a positive effect on children with ADHD. In a 2009 study, from Sweden, 25 percent of the children taking a daily dose of omega-3s had a significant decrease in symptoms after three months. After six months, almost 50 percent experienced improved symptom management. While this sounds very promising, the likelihood of a child eating sardines and tuna every day probably isn’t realistic. Parents should first try to incorporate these foods within their regular diets using recipes like Salmon Patties and Tuna Melts. Thereafter, you may want to consider a fish oil supplement. Since these supplements come in different forms it’s best to talk to a nutritionist before grabbing the first thing on the shelf.