Diet & Nutrition

What If Paleo Really Is the Answer?

Studies show that a high-protein, low-sugar, no-additive diet, combined with ADHD-friendly supplements, can improve symptoms for kids and adults. Dr. Sandy Newmark explains the foods, vitamins, and other strategies that work best.

A woman cutting healthy vegetables, a key part of a good adhd diet for kids.
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Food for Symptom Relief

I've used nutritional interventions for hundreds of people with ADHD during the past 24 years. Dietary changes can result in significant improvements in symptoms of hyperactivity, concentration, impulsivity, and even oppositional behavior.

Many people are eager to try foods and supplements to help manage ADHD symptoms, but often don’t know where to start. Here are dietary changes that, I have found, deliver the most symptom relief.

Milk, eggs, and nuts are all high in protein — a key ingredient in a healthy ADHD diet for kids.
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Go with Protein

Foods rich in protein — lean beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, soy, and low-fat dairy products — may have beneficial effects on ADHD symptoms. Protein-rich foods are used by the brain to make neurotransmitters — chemicals that help brain cells talk with each other. Eating protein for breakfast will help a child build brain-awakening neurotransmitters. Protein also prevents surges in blood sugar, which increase hyperactivity.

A girl with ADHD eats a sugary snack.
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Cut Back — Way Back — on Sugar

The single most important thing I recommend is to decrease the amount of sugar in the ADHD diet. Eating simple processed carbohydrates, like white bread, waffles, or white rice, is almost the same as feeding you or your child sugar. They can make you irritable, stressed, and unfocused. Serve breakfasts and lunches high in protein, complex carbs, and fiber instead to increase concentration and better behavior.

A woman pours omega-3 supplements into her hand. They are part of a healthy ADHD diet for kids.
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Get Plenty of Omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil, can improve hyperactivity, impulsivity, and concentration. Research suggests that kids with ADHD have lower blood levels of omega-3’s than kids without the condition. One recent study showed that 25 percent of kids with ADHD had a decrease in symptoms after three months. Fifty percent showed improvement by six months.

A jar of omega-3 supplements, part of a healthy ADHD diet for kids.
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Omega-3s: Optimum Dose and Form

The two main omega-3 fatty acids contained in supplements are EPA and DHA. It appears that most benefits are derived from supplements that contain more EPA versus DHA. In general, a total dose of 700 to 1,000 mg seems good for younger children; 1,500 to 2,000 mg for older children. Because the chewable forms of omega-3’s—gummies, say—don’t have that much fish oil in them, it is best to take a capsule or liquid.

A bowl of spinach has a high iron content, which may help ADHD symptoms.
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Maintain Iron Levels

Many people are unaware of the important role iron plays in controlling ADHD symptoms. A 2004 study found that the average iron level of children with ADHD (measured as ferritin) was 22, compared with 44 in children without ADHD. Another study showed that increasing iron levels improved symptoms for children with ADHD almost as much as taking a stimulant. Because too much iron is dangerous, have your pediatrician test ferritin levels before giving iron.

A woman with ADHD reads the ingredients on a bottle of supplements.
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Check Zinc and Magnesium Levels

These minerals are essential to normal health and may play an important role in controlling ADHD symptoms. Many children, with and without ADHD, don’t get enough of them. Zinc regulates the neurotransmitter dopamine and may help methylphenidate work more effectively. Magnesium is also used to make neurotransmitters and has a calming effect on the brain. Have your doctor test your child’s mineral levels.

Organic food is low in chemicals, which may help ADHD symptoms.
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Weed Out Food Chemicals

Several studies suggest that artificial additives make kids without ADHD more hyperactive, and make hyperactive children worse. Gatorade, cheese puffs, and candy contain artificial colors and preservatives, but are found in other foods as well. Read food ingredient labels to find additive-free foods. Fresh unprocessed foods are your best bet. Avoid colorful cereals, and substitute 100-percent fruit juice for soft drinks.

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Watch for Food Sensitivities

Many children with ADHD are sensitive to certain foods in the diet, making their symptoms worse. The most common culprits are dairy, wheat, and soy. If there are two foods that you suspect are exacerbating your child’s ADHD symptoms, eliminate one for two or three weeks. Observe your child’s symptoms during that time to see if they improve. Find a professional to guide you if your child needs to be on a restrictive ADHD diet.

Gluten free bread and preztels are part of a healthy ADHD diet for kids.
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Check for Problems with Gluten

An allergy to gluten — a protein found in wheat, barley and rye — can worsen ADHD symptoms, in addition to causing a whole other set of problems. Many of ADHD patients improve on gluten-free diets. If you suspect you have a gluten allergy, see your doctor and ask about going on an elimination diet. If you are allergic, your doctor will help you switch to a gluten-free ADHD diet.

A woman with ADHD smelling herbs at a farmer's market
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Try Helpful Herbs

Most herbs that have been recommended for managing ADHD symptoms have been poorly researched. The ones that have research behind them and work are a combination of valerian and lemon balm, which seems to relax children with ADHD by reducing anxiety. To improve attention, a product called Nurture & Clarity may help. These is some evidence that pycnogenol, made from pine bark, improves concentration in some children. Look for standardized herbs that are free of contaminants.

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