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Before You Give Your Child Stimulants for ADHD, Try Some Dietary Changes

The American Psychiatric Association estimates that between 3 and 7 percent of American children suffer from attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, ADHD, though some studies show even higher rates. ADHD diagnoses have increased by an astounding 66 percent since 2000.

Many children now take prescription drugs, chiefly stimulants, to combat the symptoms of ADHD — hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention.

Because it’s a growing problem, studies continue being done to try to determine if there are other alternatives, besides drug therapy, that could help a child with ADHD.

The Role of Nutrition

Proper nutrition, including a wide assortment of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fatty acids is important for a young child, to support normal brain development. Studies have found that children with ADHD, as well as many Americans who consume the typical “Western” diet — high in processed foods and low in nutritional value — have low levels of essential fatty acids (EFAs). These include omega-3 and omega-6 acids.

In a study of close to 100 boys, those with lower levels of omega-3 acids had more learning and behavioral problems than boys who had normal levels.

Studies on the link between low omega-3 fatty acids and ADHD have yielded mixed results. A few studies have found that omega-3’s help improve behavioral symptoms, though some have criticized the studies’ methodology as not being rigorous. While some experts feel that more studies are needed, eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids could prove beneficial.

Good food sources of omega-3’s are:

  • Fish, including salmon and sardines
  • Beef and dairy products from grass-fed cows
  • Omega-3 enriched egg yolks
  • Wild rice
  • Beans

Good-quality fish oil supplements can also be purchased; they can be found at most supermarkets and pharmacies, as well as natural supplement centers and online.

Herbal Therapy

Many parents report good results using herbs as sleep aids, for ADHD children who have difficulty sleeping. These can be bought in capsules, and some come in tea bags for tea as well. Popular calming herbs include:

  • Valerian
  • Lemon balm
  • Kava
  • Hops
  • Passion flower

If your child is taking other medications, you should consult with your pediatrician before using herbs, as they may produce undesired effects when mixed with other medicines. For example, calming herbs should not be taken in conjunction with sedative medications, as they can increase the sedative’s effects.

Elimination Diets

At least a small percentage of children with ADHD is believed to be reactive or allergic to certain foods or food additives, which can induce hyperactive behaviors. Whole foods that may be a problem include:

  • Milk (though buying organic milk may make all the difference)
  • Eggs (again, organic eggs may be better tolerated than non-organic)
  • Nuts
  • Wheat
  • Soy products

Food additives that are suspected by some experts, as well as parents, to cause ADHD and trigger symptoms:

  • Artificial colorings (especially yellow, red or green)
  • Artificial preservatives

If you suspect that a whole food, or a food additive, may be behind your child’s ADHD symptoms, you could try doing an elimination diet, where you eliminate from your child’s diet all foods and additives that you suspect may be causing the symptoms, wait 2-4 weeks, then, if symptoms improve, reintroduce foods one by one, waiting a week before introducing the next food.

Keep a journal where you write specific comments about your child’s behavior after consuming the different foods. You can continue this process until the culprit food or foods have been identified, or until you know that none of the foods was the problem.

Elimination diets are something for which you may want to enlist the help of your pediatrician or a  registered dietician, to prevent nutritional deficiencies and get feedback on your child’s reactions to the foods.


Though many parents suspect that sugar sets off ADHD symptoms in their children, no study has found a link between sugar consumption and ADHD. However, for a number of other reasons, it is certainly healthy for children and adults alike to consume a low-sugar diet. Brown, raw sugar and honey, used in moderation, are always better than the bleached, nutrient-depleted sugar used to make candies, children’s breakfast cereals, and most processed foods that contain sugar.

Eating a Healthy Diet

Consuming a healthy diet, low in processed foods and rich in whole, natural foods (organic, whenever possible) is a good choice for everyone in the family, and will foster good health in general, now and in the future.

A healthy diet for school-age children, and their parents, is low in fat, high in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Lean protein (lean steak, chicken, fish, and beans) is also part of a healthy diet. We all need good fats daily, too, such as those from avocados, nuts or olive oil (for cooking or salad dressings). Low-fat dairy foods are also good.

Eat balanced meals by including simple and complex carbohydrates, protein, and good fats at every meal. Carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, starches, pasta) should make up about 50 percent of a person’s daily food intake, with protein and fats evenly split, give or take, for the other 50 percent.

Seek out foods high in omega-3 acids, or purchase a good fish oil supplement.

A Few Parting Tips on Encouraging Good Behavior from Your Child

  • Keep things simple
  • Stick to a clearly defined, stated routine. For example, lay out a series of steps that your child must always follow when he or she gets up in the morning and gets ready for school. Have specific rules about when homework is done and under what circumstances (i.e., no outside distractions such as TV)
  • Reward good behavior with verbal praise, as well as periodic treats
  • As hard as it may be, remain calm, even when things are chaotic! Getting worked up will only aggravate the situation

By Marc Courtiol

One Response to “Before You Give Your Child Stimulants for ADHD, Try Some Dietary Changes”

  • There is some evidence that people who suffer from ADHD have greater sensitivity to some types of food. These include sugar, artificial flavors and colors, non-caloric sweeteners and a range of other foods. There are a number of diets available to ensure that ADHD sufferers get the correct nutrition without encountering triggering foods. Some people use elimination diets to determine which foods are the problem. General dietary recommendations for treating ADHD without medication involve consuming more protein, fewer simple carbohydrates, more complex carbohydrates and a higher percentage of Omega-3 fatty acids like those found in nuts and oily fish.

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