Health, Food & Nutrition

Balanced Meals, Better Behavior

Fruits, vegetables, protein, and a healthy dash of carbohydrates: these are the makings of a balanced diet plan — one that might help control behavior problems in children with ADHD caused by hunger, surges in blood sugar, or a shortfall of a particular nutrient.

Fruits and vegetables, part of an ADHD diet plan for kids
Containers of fresh green beans, tomatoes, onions, basil, apples and potatoes on wooden board are good ingredients for ADHD kids

Hyperactivity has long been associated with sugary sodas and cheeks full of candy. It is no surprise, then, that food seems to play a major role — good and bad — in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

A solid ADHD diet plan for kids, full of the right foods — and low on the wrong ones — may be an alternative treatment that can help prevent symptoms from swinging out of control.

“The role of nutrition in the treatment of any chronic condition is important,” says Helen Rasmussen, Ph.D., a research dietician at Tufts University.

[Free Download: What to Eat (and Avoid) for Improved ADHD Symptoms]

Faye Berger Mitchell, a registered dietician from Bethesda, Maryland, has a nine-year-old daughter who was diagnosed with ADHD five years ago. While her daughter takes stimulant medicine to control her ADHD, Mitchell concluded that a pill is not enough.

She finds that when her daughter eats a well-balanced ADHD-friendly diet, including vegetables, carbohydrates, fruits, and plenty of protein, her behavior tends to be more consistently under control.

“The biggest challenge is to get my daughter to eat protein,” she says. Protein is key, says Mitchell, because it can prevent surges in blood sugar, which may increase hyperactivity. For Mitchell, something as simple as slipping a little chicken or lean beef into every meal (and even into snacks) has made a difference for her daughter.

Dr. Edward Hallowell advises all of his patients to think about their plates when preparing a meal. Half of the plate, he recommends, should be filled with fruits and vegetables, one-fourth with a protein, and one-fourth with carbohydrates. This combination is a balanced diet, and it may control swings in behavior caused by hunger, surges in blood sugar, or a shortfall of a particular nutrient.

[Got a Picky Eater on Your Hands? Here’s How to Cope]

In addition to the balanced plate, Hallowell advocates eating several servings of whole grains each day to prevent blood sugar levels from spiking and then plummeting and cutting back on foods that contain dyes and excess sugar. Several studies1 2 have suggested that artificial food coloring and sugar may cause increased hyperactivity in some children with ADHD.

1 Jones, T W, et al. “Enhanced Adrenomedullary Response and Increased Susceptibility to Neuroglycopenia: Mechanisms Underlying the Adverse Effects of Sugar Ingestion in Healthy Children.” The Journal of Pediatrics, vol. 126, no. 2, 1995, pp. 171–177.
2 Mccann, Donna, et al. “Food Additives and Hyperactive Behaviour in 3-Year-Old and 8/9-Year-Old Children in the Community: A Randomised, Double-Blinded, Placebo-Controlled Trial.” The Lancet, vol. 370, no. 9598, 2007, pp. 1560–1567., doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(07)61306-3.