- On June 3, 2019
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism are associated with brain growth. Knowing the role of good nutrition in healthy development, many parents turn to dietary changes hoping to see an improvement in symptoms. There are all sorts of books, blogs, and podcasts spewing contradictory advice. So, let’s break it down:
Omega 3’s– Some research suggests that Omega-3 supplementation can modestly improve ADHD symptoms.1,2,3 Omega 3 fatty acids are abundant in foods like Fish, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and soybeans. If your child lacks these foods in their diet, supplementation may be beneficial.
Overall healthy diet– Research observing overall dietary patterns of children with ADHD indicates that a diet low in fruits, vegetables, pasta, rice, and fish was associated with ADHD diagnosis.4 This evidence suggests that looking at the whole diet pattern instead of just one or two nutrients could be beneficial in understanding ADHD. Lean protein, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy can all be included in a healthy eating pattern!
Avoiding food additives such as artificial colorings, flavorings, and preservatives has been loosely linked to symptom improvement in patients with ADHD.5 Clinical trials are small, meaning the results may not apply to all patients with ADHD. The findings are insignificant at best, but food additives do not provide a nutritional benefit, so limiting your child’s access to highly processed foods is recommended.5
Sugar is often viewed as the culprit for a child’s hyperactivity. While some research links a diet high in sugar to ADHD diagnosis, clinical research does not support the idea that sugar causes hyperactive behavior. In a recent study, there was an association between sugar consumption and ADHD prevalence amongst boys 6 years of age, but there was no association 5 years later. Researchers from this study suggested that consuming a high-sugar diet may be a symptom of ADHD, not the other way around. Children with ADHD have been shown to have irregular meal patterns and exhibit a tendency to eat more than 5 times a day.6 The American Heart Association recommends limiting your child’s added sugar to less than 25 grams per day.7 Try to stick to a regular eating schedule to keep your child from going overboard on sugar!
One common piece of advice for children with autism is to follow a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet. Eliminating these foods may lead to nutritional deficiencies, and research indicates that a GFCF diet is only appropriate if the child has been diagnosed with an allergy or intolerance to gluten or dairy.3 Eating foods that cause sensitivity may result in GI distress which can make anyone uncomfortable. Autism might make it more difficult to communicate that discomfort.
Do you think your child’s condition improves when eliminating a particular food? Each child is different, and it’s important to remember that individuals react differently to different treatment options. Working with a dietitian to initiate a healthy diet may help improve your child’s symptoms and ensure your child is getting the nutrition they need!
Written by: Diana Ricketts
Dietetic Intern, Georgia State University
Graduation Date: December 2019
University of Georgia, BS in Dietetics
- Moghadas, M. et al. (2019). Antioxidant therapies in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Frontiers in Bioscience, 24(2), 313-333. doi:10.2741/4720
- Agostoni, C., Nobile, M., Ciappolino, V., Delvecchio, G., Tesei, A., Turolo, S., . . . Brambilla, P. (2017). The Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Developmental Psychopathology: A Systematic Review on Early Psychosis, Autism, and ADHD. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 18(12), 2608. doi:10.3390/ijms18122608
- Cruchet, S., Lucero, Y., & Cornejo, V. (2016). Truths, Myths and Needs of Special Diets: Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, and Vegetarianism. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 68(1), 43-50. doi:10.1159/000445393
- Rios-Hernandez, A., Alda, J. A., Farran-Codina, A., Ferreira-García, E., & Izquierdo-Pulido, M. (2017). The Mediterranean Diet and ADHD in Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics, 139(2).
- Ly, V., Bottelier, M., Hoekstra, P. J., Arias Vasquez, A., Buitelaar, J. K., & Rommelse, N. N. (2017). Elimination diets’ efficacy and mechanisms in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry, 26, 1067-1079.
- Del-Ponte, B., Anselmi, L., Assuncao, M. F., Tovo-Rodrigues, L., Munhoz, T. N., Matijasevich, A., . . . Santos, I. S. (2019). Sugar consumption and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): A birth cohort study. Journal of Affective Disorders, 243, 290-296.
- Sugar Recommendation Healthy Kids and Teens Infographic. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/sugar-recommendation-healthy-kids-and-teens-infographic