Food Therapy: The Right Diet for ADHD Symptoms

Medication isn't everything — when it comes to treating ADHD symptoms, the right diet can be among the most effective forms of therapy.

An ADHD child eating the right diet

For most of us, there are four basic food groups: milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate, and chocolate truffles.

—Jill Shalvis, best-selling author

“More Carbs? No, Thanks. I’ll Pass”

I was in central Oregon, lecturing to mental-health professionals about ADD. When I walked into the large hall, my heart sank as I saw the food in the back of the room. On a table were boxes of muffins, donuts, bagels, and cinnamon rolls. I started my lecture, talking about the food in the back of the room. “Those foods are good examples of what parents unknowingly do that makes kids struggle in school. They start the day with muffins, donuts, or sugary cereals. They get virtually no protein in the morning. No wonder teachers complain that so many kids cannot concentrate.” For most people with ADD, the right diet is a higher-protein, higher-healthy-fat, lower-simple-carbohydrate diet.”

The right diet can decrease the amount of ADHD medication needed. Joseph Egger reported in the British medical journal, The Lancet, that 116 of 185 hyperactive children had a positive response to a low-allergen diet (higher in protein and lower in simple carbohydrates) supplemented by calcium, zinc, magnesium, and vitamins. When I can convince my patients to eat this way, they notice better mood stability, focus, and stamina, as well as less distractibility, tiredness in the late morning and mid-afternoon, and less craving for sugary substances. In some cases, the right foods can be the primary treatment for ADD.

— DANIEL G. AMEN, M.D., excerpted from Healing ADD: The Breakthrough Program That Allows You to See and Heal the 7 Types of ADD. Copyright 2013.


The best foods for children who have ADHD are the same as those for children who don’t have the condition. All children need lots of healthy unprocessed food and generous amounts of fruits and vegetables.

The right diet — and good nutrition — is especially important for anyone with ADHD. Many children can eat a relatively poor diet and function pretty well at school and at home, at least in the short term. ADHD kids can't.

Eating the wrong foods makes the difference between losing focus at 11 a.m. and succeeding in school. Eating the right foods makes the difference between a successful play date and one that ends in a temper tantrum. It is important for parents to pay attention to the effect that foods have on their child’s behavior and symptoms.

I have conducted nutritional interventions for hundreds of patients with ADHD during the past 24 years. In many cases, dietary changes have not only improved the symptoms of hyperactivity, concentration, and impulsivity, but have also calmed oppositional behavior.

Food Trends vs. Food Facts

Many books and thousands of articles are published every year about which foods you should eat to have the healthiest body and brain. And some of the advice changes from year to year. However, the basics of healthy eating are constant. Children and adults need adequate amounts of high-quality macronutrients — protein, fat, and carbs — and lots of micronutrients — vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables.

Protein should come from meat, fish, beans, nuts, dairy, and grains, depending on your family’s preferences. A child should get half a gram of protein each day for each pound of body weight. If your child weighs 100 pounds, he or she should consume 50 grams of protein a day. If he weighs 80 pounds, 40 grams of protein will do it. Oats and quinoa are two higher-protein grains. Collards, broccoli, and peas have higher amounts of protein than other vegetables.

Carbs should be high in fiber and low on the glycemic index (GI). The glycemic index rates carbohydrates according to their effects on blood sugar. A food that has a low GI rating lowers blood sugar levels, decreases cravings, and increases focus. Whole grains, beans, seeds, and most vegetables are good choices (see “More Carbs? No Thanks. I’ll Pass” in the sidebar).

A child should consume healthy fats, a combination of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and saturated fat, avoiding trans fats at all costs. Although most trans fats have been eliminated or reduced in processed foods, they can be found in some items, including baked goods and french fries, in some restaurants. Any food that lists “partially hydrogenated” oil on the ingredients label contains trans fats.


Food Fixes for Better Attention, Focus, and Cognition
Tana Amen, BSN, RN, shares what you should (and absolutely should not) be eating to help manage ADHD symptoms. Listen to the audio now!

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TAGS: ADHD Diet and Nutrition, ADHD-Friendly Meals

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