5 Foods to Feed Your Child With ADHD—and 5 to Avoid

Nutrition choices that may help or worsen symptoms of ADHD.
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CHOOSE: Essential fatty acids (EFAs)
Here is one fat you want your child to have: DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, is the key to unlocking an ADHD child's brain. Studies have found that children with learning disorders, including attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, often have an EFA deficiency.
The right kinds of fat are needed to help the brain fire information efficiently from synapse to synapse. An ADHD child experiences a miscommunication between brain cells, says clinical nutritionist Marcia Zimmerman.
A message is fired, but not received, "so then it gets sucked back up into the neuron that sent it in the first place," says Zimmerman. The EFAs help the brain cells receive the messages sent between synapses, thus eliminating the chatter and preventing the sending neuron from scooping up its own message.
Fish, flax seeds and nuts are great sources of EFAs. (Try this ginger-roasted salmon recipe.) The specific EFA to look for is the omega-3 essential fatty acid DHA that's found in fish and some algae. Fish oil supplements are an efficient way to help your child get the amount he needs. DHA omega-3 eggs and other foods with DHA added to them are also good sources. EFAs from flax seed and other sources can work too, but the body needs to convert it into the form most advantageous for one's body, so they're a less efficient source. (How about some Fig 'n Flax Thumbprint Cookies?)
By Jean Weiss for MSN Health & Fitness
1 of 11 Boy eating salmon dinner (© Corbis)
CHOOSE: Vitamin B complex
The B vitamins have been linked to improved neural activity and are great at reducing stress, both useful for children with ADHD. While most B vitamins are safe, two do have potential side effects, so consult with a medical provider before selecting a supplement for your child. Vitamin B3, also commonly known as niacin, can cause skin flushing and, in a time-released form, has been associated with liver damage. High doses of vitamin B6 can cause numbness and tingling.
Good food sources of the B vitamins are nutritional yeast, liver, whole-grain cereals and breads, rice, nuts, milk, eggs, meats, fish, fruits, leafy green vegetables and soy.
2 of 11 Boy eating cereal (© Kraig Scarbinsky/Getty Images)
CHOOSE: Protein
If you've ever traded your afternoon caffeine fix for a couple bites of salmon, then you already know: Protein evenly sustains your energy. The same holds true for children with ADHD—eating small portions of protein throughout the day evens out their energy, too. "I have always told parents they need to plan a protein lunch," says clinical nutritionist Marcia Zimmerman. "Make sure the child gets protein for breakfast, too."
Serving a protein meal doesn't mean you have to cook. Offer your child string cheese wrapped in whole grain bread. Feed him an egg, or low-fat plain yogurt blended with a banana for sweetness. (After school snack? Whip up a Pomegranate-Banana Smoothie.)
Zimmerman suggests mixing protein powder into a smoothie that you serve your child for breakfast, and offering a protein-rich smoothie as a snack when your child returns from school. Throughout the day, offer nuts and seeds, brown rice cakes spread with hummus, or any nut butters such as cashew butter.
3 of 11 Boy eating chicken (© Andersen Ross/Getty Images)
CHOOSE: Calcium and magnesium
Give your child a tall glass of milk or lots of green veggies. While calcium is known for helping build strong bones, Zimmerman says it also supports cell membranes and aids the nervous system, especially in impulse transmission, which could improve a child's behavior.
Magnesium also has a calming effect on the nervous system, helping to maintain normal muscle and nerve function, and is involved in energy metabolism and protein synthesis. Children diagnosed with ADD and ADHD have responded positively to supplementation from calcium and magnesium, both of which are found naturally in many foods.
Milk and milk products are a main source of calcium. Green vegetables such as broccoli, kale, and collard greens, and whole grains and cereals are additional sources. (Recipe idea: Broccoli Mac 'n Cheese.) Green veggies such as spinach are a great source of magnesium, as are beans and peas, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
Delish Recipes:
4 of 11 Boy drinking milk (© Sean Justice/Riser/Getty Images)
CHOOSE: Trace minerals
Trace minerals are micronutrients that are needed by the body every day, but in small amounts. Trace minerals that would help an ADHD child include zinc and iron. Studies have shown that children with ADHD have low levels of zinc in their bodies compared to children without ADHD.
Iron helps regulate the neurotransmitter dopamine and may help children with ADHD, though studies have been inconclusive. Trace minerals are found in fruits, vegetables, and animal products, but many nutritionists recommend supplementing with a sugar-free multivitamin.
5 of 11 Mother giving daughter vitamin (© BananaStock/SuperStock)
AVOID: Sugar
Sugar is an ADHD child's downfall because it robs the body of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes and increases hyperactivity by preventing blood sugar levels from remaining stable.
It doesn't matter if you use refined white sugar or rich dark molasses—all sugars are created equal when it comes to their negative effect on the ADHD child. There may be slight nutritional benefits to some sugars: Sucanat, for example, is pressed cane juice that leaves the fiber behind, so you get the minerals from the plant. Also, honey offers pollen that helps with allergies, molasses contains trace minerals and iron, and agave metabolizes more slowly. Still, you should curb your child's sugar intake and get savvy to hidden sugars in foods such as breakfast cereals, energy bars, sweetened drinks, soy milk and other foods. For example, did you know that a serving of flavored yogurt might contain as much sugar as a serving of ice cream? When looking at a label, along with the obvious "sugar" tag, avoid all artificial sweeteners and foods that contain corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose and fructose.
6 of 11 Young child with lollipop (© Burke/Triolo Productions/FoodPix/Jupiterimages)
AVOID: Additives
Blue bubblegum, pink and yellow cake decorations, goldfish crackers dyed the color of the rainbow—all are a visual delight for any child. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved several hundred food additives designed to improve flavor, taste, and appearance, but this doesn't mean they are healthy for your ADHD child, Zimmerman cautions. Steer clear of all artificial dyes and flavors. Zimmerman specifically mentions food coloring, such as red and yellow, and monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG. And don't assume, just because several years ago you read a lot about it in the media, that unsafe dyes are off the shelves. When possible, go natural with your food products.
7 of 11 Brownies with candy on top (© James Baigrie/FoodPix/Jupiterimages )
AVOID: Hydrogenated oils
Bad fats aren't just the nemesis for weight loss; they also inhibit healthy nerve function. "The wrong kinds of fat don't feed the brain, instead they interfere with the brain," Zimmerman says. "The membranes of the brain have to be very fluid and if you are putting those saturated fats in there, cut back."
The wrong kinds of fats are the trans fats and saturated fats, generally the ones that are hard at room temperature. Manufacturers have become savvy to trans fats, so you'll rarely find those on a label, but you'll still find saturated fats. Healthier oils include flaxseed, canola and olive oils. Another tip to avoid hydrogenated oils: Stick to the grocery store's perimeter when you shop. "I always tell parents to stay out of the middle of the store" where foods are more processed and likely to contain unhealthy fats, Zimmerman says.
8 of 11 Young girl eating fried chicken (© White Rock/DAJ/Getty Images)
AVOID: Caffeine
Caffeine pulls minerals out of the bone, when your body lacks the natural level of minerals it needs to function. Coffee, tea and other caffeinated drinks are acidic and lower the natural pH of the body, says Zimmerman, making it work harder to find a natural balance. This means that an ADHD child who's consuming too much caffeine—sometimes found in chocolates, desserts, and carbonated beverages—may be losing the minerals he needs to assist his nerve function.
9 of 11 Young girl eating a chocolate cupcake (© Corbis)
AVOID: Salt
Some snackers forgo sugar in favor of salt, but sodium is another nutrient to avoid in excess. Many of us know that sodium can cause high blood pressure, but too much can also interfere with your child's internal equilibrium when it comes to ADHD, says Zimmerman. Similar to caffeine, salt can lead to a depletion of the minerals needed to keep the neurons firing in a healthy manner. Saying sodium "interferes with a child's mineral balance," Zimmerman suggests trading tortilla chips, pretzels and other snacks high in salt for potassium-rich fruits and vegetables. Processed foods tend to be high in sodium, so watch for it on the labels.
Jean Weiss is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo. She writes regularly about nutrition and healthy living.
10 of 11 Tortilla chips (© Image Source Pink/Getty Images)