Nutritional Strategies for Children With ADHD – Part 1

IMG_0532“All we ever do as a family anymore is talk about my ADHD,” my son Austin complained, as he pushed aside the books I bought to help us learn about this new diagnosis he had been given. I sighed, because I knew he was right, but I didn’t know what else to do. Due to concerns shared by his teachers, we went through several weeks of testing for my youngest son for what we thought at the time was anxiety. Instead, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), which in many ways is better than anxiety! Needless to say, we quickly gave ourselves and Austin an extensive education on the disorder, its treatment options and what we could do to help our son. For the first time ever, I began browsing through parenting blogs and nutrition blogs to see what others were doing to help their children cope with ADHD.

I was dismayed by the sensational information that is “published” on some of these blogs, with a complete lack of scientific evidence for what is being recommended. Many of the writers were very persuasive, and other parents seemed to be trying very hard to follow their advice even at a high monetary and peace-of-mind cost to themselves and their families. It was an overwhelming transition to begin with: finding out my child has ADHD, working towards a medication regime that was effective without horrible side effects, working with teachers for a school special education plan, changing routines at home and educating siblings, friends and ourselves. Not to mention helping your child understand his diagnosis and cope with the fact that he will be taking medication for the rest of his life, only to have him tell you he feels like “all we ever do as a family anymore is talk about his disease.” You get the point! I didn’t want to wade through pages upon pages of opinions; I wanted nutrition interventions that had at least been proven to effectively help with ADHD.

So what are those interventions that work? Here’s a quick summary of what I found!

  • Sugar and artificial sweeteners do not increase the impulsivity, inattentiveness, or hyperactivity of children with ADHD (or any other children). However, these substances do have other adverse effects and all children should be encouraged to reduce intake of simple carbohydrates and sugars, and be provided with education to work towards increasing whole grains and complex carbohydrates.
  • The research is conflicting on whether or not artificial food colorings and preservatives increase the symptoms of ADHD. It’s hard enough to help a child learn to control ADHD behaviors. Avoiding all foods with artificial colors and preservatives at home, and expecting him to do so at school and social situations is almost impossible. RDs should have conversations with parents about the pros and cons of this diet to complement other lifestyle and behavioral management components of ADHD and help the family reach their goals for their child.
  • Vitamin D supplementation may be beneficial for children with ADHD. Low blood levels of Vitamin D are common in people with ADHD and other disorders associated with impulsive behavior. Supplementation has been shown to improve inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity; individuals with confirmed deficiency may benefit from supplementing with 4,000 IU of Vitamin D per day, but specific dosage advice should be obtained from the child’s pediatrician.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids may help with reducing inattentiveness associated with ADHD. If a deficiency is confirmed or nutrition history suggests very limited dietary intake of Omega-3s, it may be beneficial to choose a supplement that contains both EPA and DHAs (specific types of Omega-3 fatty acids). Specific dosage advice should be obtained from the child’s pediatrician.

As for my son, he is 12 now, and we have been through a lot with medications that didn’t work, some that made him much worse than before, and have finally settled on a medication plan that we are happy with. He started middle school last year, and with many prayers and worried nights, he hit the ground running and had an amazing year – so much better than elementary school, which is surprising for a child with ADHD. He talks about his diagnosis with other children because he too wants to educate others. And, he tells other kids “eating sugar isn’t an excuse for being hyper, so calm down. I know this because my mom is a Registered Dietitian!”

While it’s true that impulsivity, inattentiveness, and hyperactivity are hallmarks of the disease, so are creativity, innovation, imagination, and usually intelligence. In a future blog post I’ll share ideas on how to harness these traits to benefit you and your child in the kitchen!

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Wendy Phillips, MS, RD, CNSC, CLE, FAND is the Immediate Past President of VAND and the Professional Education Chairperson. She is a Division Director of Nutrition for Morrison Healthcare, and the mom of 2 boys, ages 12 and 15.