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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Nutrition

July 25, 2017   /

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Nutrition

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that can result in inattentiveness, overactivity, impulsivity, or a combination of these things. Families with a  child who is diagnosed with ADHD often seek alternative treatments, including nutrition, for their child. Is there a relationship between diet and ADHD?

ADHD also is known as attention-deficit disorder or childhood hyperkinesis. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual divides the symptoms of ADHD into those of inattentiveness and those of hyperactivity and impulsivity. A diagnosis of ADHD requires symptoms to a degree beyond what is expected for a child of the same age.

ADHD is the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder of childhood, affecting 3% to 5% of school-aged children. It is more commonly diagnosed in boys than girls. Treatment for ADHD includes medication and behavior therapy. Information on the identification and treatment of ADHD is available at and

Interest in the relationship between diet and ADHD has existed for years. The theory that sugar causes hyperactivity and the ADHD child should avoid it is not supported through scientific research. The Feingold diet, which is based on the theory that certain artificial flavors or colors affect learning and cause behavioral problems, is not validated by controlled studies. Some experts believe food sensitivities are tied to ADHD and recommend an elimination diet; the research is mixed.

A newer theory in the management of ADHD is the use of essential fatty acid supplementation for ADHD. Several studies have reported that children with attention disorders had low levels of essential fatty acids. Scientists theorize that fatty acid supplementation would benefit those with ADHD. Data from a number of small studies are intriguing, and a 2012 article in Pediatrics recommends omega-3 and omega-6 supplements. A discussion on the dose and duration of treatment is available at

Implications for practitioners
Dietitians should encourage parents of children with ADHD to consume a healthy, well-balanced diet, as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. Regular exercise or physical activity is important to good health, particularly for children who are very active. Dietitians should encourage families to adhere to medical and behavioral therapy, as prescribed by the child’s treatment team.

If parents choose to try to modify a child’s diet to improve symptoms of ADHD, a registered dietitian can assist the family in maintaining a well-balanced diet pattern. This provides a good opportunity to encourage families to use fewer packaged and processed foods for general good health, even if food additives in these foods are not related to ADHD symptoms.

If improvements in ADHD symptoms are noted by a family, encourage the family to continue with the dietary modifications. However, diet restrictions often are difficult for children. In the case of ADHD, the risk of creating family conflict with dietary change could greatly outweigh any potential benefit of dietary restriction.


References and recommended readings
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). National Institute of Mental Health Web site. Accessed April 2, 2013. 

Cruz NV, Bahna SL. Do food or additives cause behavior disorders? Pediatr Ann. 2006;35(10):748-754.

Marcason W. Can dietary intervention play a part in the treatment of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder? J Am Diet Assoc. 2005;105(7):1161-1162.

Millichap JG, Yee MM. The diet factor in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Pediatrics. 2012;129(2):330-337. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-2199.

US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. MedlinePlus Web site. Updated March 25, 2012. Accessed April 2, 2013.


Review Date 4/13