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Can Nutrition Help Children Manage ADHD?

One of the most common childhood disorders is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Symptoms of this disorder include difficulty staying focused and paying attention, difficulty controlling behavior, and hyperactivity (over-activity).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1 in 10 U.S. school-aged children had received an ADHD diagnosis by a health care provider by 2011. That number increased by 42% between 2003 and 2011.

Scientists are still unsure what causes ADHD, although many studies have been done to look at the link between genetics, environmental factors, nutrition, and brain injuries can all contribute to ADHD.

Possible Contributing Factors to ADHD


A nationwide study published in the Pediatrics journal in 2010 found that children exposed to higher levels of pesticides found in trace amounts on commercially grown fruit and vegetables were more likely to have ADHD that children with less exposure. Organophosphates are "designed" to have toxic effects on the nervous system, says the lead author of the study, Maryse Bouchard, Ph.D., a researcher in the department of environmental and occupational health at the University of Montreal. "That's how they kill pests."

"Organic fruits and vegetables contain much less pesticides, so I would certainly advise getting those for children," says Bouchard. "National surveys have also shown that fruits and vegetables from farmers' markets contain less pesticides even if they're not organic. If you can buy local and from farmers' markets, that's a good way to go."


Mercury is considered to be a major environmental threat by scientists. We often are exposed to Mercury by eating fish. In 2012, JAMA Pediatrics (formerly the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolscent Medicine) published a study on the effects of prenatal exposure to Mercury and fish consumption during pregnancy and ADHD in children. The study reached two conclusions that were almost contradictory. Results suggested that prenatal Mercury exposure is associated with a higher risk of ADHD-related behaviors. However, fish consumption during pregnancy is associated with a lower risk of these behaviors.

Eating two servings a week of low Mercury fish while pregnant may extend these protective benefits. Certain types of fish are more likely to have a higher Mercury content, such as swordfish, fresh tuna, Marlin, Orange Roughy, Shark, and Mackerel. Fish with the lowest levels of Mercury include anchovies, catfish, herring, salmon, tilapia, and freshwater trout. (For a more extensive list, visit the Natural Resources Defense Council for a Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish.)

Many parents of children with ADHD find that nutrition can make a big difference in the behavior of their children with ADHD. Science has yet to prove that nutrition is a cause for this disorder, but many studies suggest that good nutrition can play a role in managing it.

Nutrition to Help Manage ADHD Symptoms


Protein rich meals can trigger the brain to produce alertness-inducing neurotransmitters, boosting a child's ability to focus, according to studies by neuroscientist Richard Wurtman, Ph.D. He also found that carbohydrate rich meals can trigger drowsiness. Depending on their age, children need between 24 to 30 grams of protein a day. Try adding nut butters, eggs, or cheese to your child's breakfast or lunch to be sure they are getting adequate protein amounts.

Brain Boosting Nutrients

Zinc, iron, and magnesium are minerals that are needed to produce neurotransmitters and to improve cognitive function. Zinc and iron are used by the brain to produce and regulate dopamine, and magnesium is used to make neurotransmitters that are involved in attention and concentration, and has a calming effect on the brain. These three minerals are found in poultry, seafood, and nuts.

Fish Oil

One of the reasons that prenatal fish consumption may be linked to lower risks of ADHD may be the omega-3 essential fatty acids that are necessary for brain and nerve cell function. A study conducted at Goteborg University in Sweden concluded that daily doses of omega-3s reduced ADHD symptoms by 50% within 6 months. Typically found in cold-water, fatty fish such as sardines, tuna, and salmon, walnuts or an omega-3 fish oil supplement can also provide this crucial nutrient.


Adults and some children have experienced the benefits of stimulating herbs, such as Ginkgo biloba and ginseng, according to the editors of ADDitude Magazine. These herbs may act like stimulants without the side effects of ADHD medication, improving ADHD rating scales and reducing impulsivity and distractibility. Asian ginseng may be too much for younger children, who may want to try American ginseng instead.

Rhodiola rosea is an Arctic grown herb that may improve alertness, attention, and accuracy. While usually too stimulating for younger children, it could be beneficial to older children, such as junior high, high school, or even college aged people who need to spend long hours reading or completing papers and projects.

Some parents find that reducing their children's exposure to sugars and food additives, such as artifical colors, flavors, and food preservatives, can have a positive effect on behavior. The best way to see if certain foods affect your child is to try eliminating foods and drinks that you believe have a negative effect on behavior for a week or two, and logging the results. After this time, you can slowly reintroduce foods (or additives) back one at a time, recording any changes in behavior.

Be sure to consult with your medical professional before adding supplements or changing your child's diet.

Melissa Zimmerman, Healthy Goods









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