ADHD and Diet: Why Colorful Plant Foods May Make a Difference

By: Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN; Reboot Nutritionist

One out of every 20 children is diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the United States. ADHD is a serious condition that can make children more at risk for developing issues with depression, anxiety and difficulty in school or work. Many parents are concerned about the long-term use of medication and related side effects in their children, and are seeking lifestyle changes to reduce the need or complement the effects of medications. Can a restricted or enhanced diet make a difference?

A link between diet and ADHD has been suspected and studied for decades. New research suggests that avoiding certain artificial or processed ingredients, supplementing nutrients to correct deficiencies, eating a well-balanced, healthy diet and limiting refined carbohydrate and sugar intake may all help to improve attention and cognitive function in children with ADHD.

A Rainbow of Colors
Consuming foods and beverages with artificial colors may trigger symptoms in approximately 8% of children with ADHD. Recent research has led the European Union Parliament to require warning labels on six colors used in foods and drinks. This topic remains controversial. Some studies have not substantiated these claims while other research points to a subset of children being sensitive to artificial colors. In 2008 the advocacy group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, pushed for the FDA to regulate food color additives in the United States, but at the time the FDA felt the research was inconclusive.

Use fresh juice for real colors!
Consuming more colorful, fresh fruits and vegetables and using juice to color and flavor beverages for kids offers both the benefit of increasing intake of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients while reducing exposure to potentially detrimental additives and even fighting depression.
Here are some fun ideas for making bright, vibrant, delicious treats that kids love:
Juice pops
Juice drinks
Summer Smoothies

Which supplements might help?
A number of nutrient deficiencies have been reported in children with ADHD, including iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium, selenium, omega-3 fats, B vitamins. Lacking in these nutrients may be linked to exacerbated symptoms of inattention, depression or anxiety. Speak with your child’s doctor if you are concerned about a nutrient deficiency. Often times boosting these foods in the diet can help while other situations may require a supplement. Here is a short list of plant foods rich in these nutrients:
• Iron – leeks, kale, mustard/collard/beet/turnip greens
• Zinc – peas, wheat germ, oatmeal, brown rice
• Calcium – broccoli, kale, spinach
• Selenium – brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, barley, brown rice, oats, mushrooms
• Omega-3 fats – walnuts, ground flax seeds, flax oil, hemp seeds, chia seeds
• Vitamin B6 – banana, avocado, brown rice, oats, sunflower seeds, broccoli

Elimination diets
A long list of common offenders prevalent in the typical Western diet, including dairy and gluten, may exacerbate ADHD symptoms in a subset of children, leading many parents to try elimination diets to test which components may or may not be a trigger in their child. One study found that 10/67 patients with ADHD also had Celiac disease.

Healthy vs. Western Diet
The Standard American Diet (SAD) or Western diet has been linked with a higher risk for ADHD diagnosis although experts note that other factors may also be at play in this association. Australian researchers found that a “healthy” diet that is rich on omega-3 foods (like flax seed, walnuts, wild fish), fruits, vegetables, fiber, legumes and whole grains (like this quinoa salad) was not associated with an ADHD diagnosis in children, compared to a “western” diet.

Lower Sugar Diets
Some studies link sugary foods and lack of fiber and protein to heightened ADHD symptoms. Combining healthy protein-rich foods with carbohydrate-rich foods and increasing fiber intake with vegetables and whole grains, can all help to promote steady blood sugar levels. Limiting refined, processed sugars and white flour foods can also help prevent the highs and lows of blood sugar swings.

While a full Reboot is not advised for children, unless under the supervision of a pediatrician, following these Simple Eating Guidelines is a healthy step that may help reduce symptoms of ADHD and are simply good for the whole family. Here are more ideas for building a healthy, plant-based diet free of potential ADHD trigger foods.

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Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN; Reboot Nutritionist

Stacy is a Board Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition and an Integrative Nutritionist. She consults for various companies, focusing on health, wellness and innovative strategies to help increase individual’s fruit and vegetable intake. Stacy is an American College of Sports Medicine Certified Health Fitness Specialist; she holds a BS degree in Dietetics from Indiana University, completed her dietetic internship at Massachusetts General Hospital, and earned a Masters in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a Senior Clinical Nutritionist at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute/Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School teaching affiliates, in Boston, MA, with more than 20 years of experience. Stacy created and now serves as project manager and lead writer for nutrition services content on the Dana Farber website and the affiliated, nationally recognized nutrition app. Stacy is regularly featured on TV, radio, print and social media on behalf of Dana Farber and other organizations. Together with her husband, Dr. Russell Kennedy PsyD, they have a private practice, Wellness Guides, LLC. Stacy is an adjunct professor in Wellness and Health Coaching at William James College, currently teaching a graduate course in Health Coaching. Stacy is featured in the award winning documentary films, “Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead” and “Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead 2,” and serves on the Reboot with Joe Medical Advisory Board. Stacy lives in Wellesley with her husband, two sons and three dogs. She enjoys cooking, yoga, hiking and spending time with friends and family. Stacy is also one of the nutritionists who runs our Guided Reboot programs.

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