Lisa Tabachnick Hotta
If you have a child with ADHD, you know there isn’t a magic “cure”—but many experts and parents think that a change in diet might help with symptoms. “I have found that identifying and correcting vitamin deficiency has made a difference for many children with ADHD,” says Roy Steinbock, M.D., a holistic pediatrician in Boulder, Colorado. All kids need nutrients and healthy foods, but because certain vitamins and minerals are particularly related to brain function, they may be especially important for kids with attention and behavior issues. Here are a few food choices that may help a child with ADHD (be sure to speak with your own pediatrician before making changes to your child’s diet):
Kids need protein for their brain cells to function, but the body can’t store excess amino acids (that’s what protein is made of). For a kid who has trouble focusing, it’s especially important to make sure his brain gets a steady supply of protein. The trick is to split up protein intake: Try offering an egg for breakfast, a cashew butter sandwich for lunch, a glass of milk at snack time, and meat or beans at dinner.
Omega-3 is a type of fat that plays a vital role in brain and nervous system function. One review of studies by a researcher at the University of Oxford found that omega-3s offer a “promising complementary approach to standard treatment” of ADHD. Kids with ADHD have shown improved behavior and attention after eating a diet supplemented with fish oil, which contains omega-3 fatty acids. There isn’t a specific recommendation for how much omega-3 kids need, but KIWI advisory board member Lawrence Rosen, M.D., says that a 10-year-old needs 500 to 1,000 millgrams of omega-3s daily. It’s found in foods such as salmon, walnuts, flaxseed, shrimp, and tofu. You can also talk with your doctor about supplements.
Iron is important for brain development, and one study of kids with ADHD showed that a vast majority of them had low iron levels. The most severely deficient were also the ones who had the most trouble with attention and hyperactivity. Similar studies have been done on zinc and magnesium. Researchers speculate that some mineral supplementation may help kids with ADHD, but talk to your doctor first—it’s important not to overdo minerals, particularly iron; too much can be poisonous to children.
Organic and natural foods
Compounds in pesticides have been linked to behavioral symptoms common with ADHD—for instance, impulsivity and attention problems—but exactly how is not fully understood. Opt for organic for the foods your child eats most often. Avoiding artificial ingredients may help, too. A number of studies have linked food dyes with behavior problems in children, including hyperactivity and inability to pay attention. “I have seen a few kids in my practice have dramatic effects from removing artificial additives from their diet, but it’s not a panacea,” says Steinbock. Learn more about additives at the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s website, cspinet.org.
Going casein-free and gluten-free
What about eliminating certain foods from a child’s diet? One study recently found that with careful monitoring, some kids with ADHD benefited from a restricted diet, though the foods each child ate varied depending on his needs. Advocates of one common restricted diet, a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet (gluten is a protein in wheat, and casein is a protein in dairy), believe it keeps improperly digested proteins from interfering with brain functions. Research is ongoing, but with a doctor’s help, it can be safe to try the GFCF diet, or another restricted diet. Be sure your child gets fiber, iron, calcium, and vitamin D from other sources.