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ADHD in Children Health Center

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Expert Q&A: ADHD and Diet

An interview with Sheah Rarback, MS, RD
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Parents of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) face lots of challenges trying to help their kids do well in school and control their behavior. Many parents wonder whether sugar, additives, or preservatives might be contributing to their child's condition, or whether food choices or dietary supplements could help their children avoid medication.  

For answers about diet and ADHD in children, WebMD turned to Sheah Rarback, MS, RD, director of the nutrition division at the University of Miami's Mailman Center for Child Development.


Q: Over the years, the incidence of ADHD and attention deficit disorder (ADD) has increased. Is it environmental, medical, or because parents and teachers are looking for a quick fix for children who are not doing well in school?

ADHD is multi-factorial. There is most likely a genetic predisposition colliding with environmental factors. Kids with ADD have the same problem concentrating and paying attention, but without the hyperactivity.

A good diagnosis is crucial to rule out any other reason for inattention or hyperactivity. A thorough medical evaluation will rule out any other physical, medical, or environmental condition causing the behavior. For example, an environmental cause would be children exposed to smoking or alcohol in utero, which results in a higher incidence of ADHD.

Q: Can a child’s diet affect his or her behavior?

If sugar is a mainstay in your child’s diet, this could impact behavior by causing huge swings in blood sugar levels. But if your child’s regular diet is loaded with sugar, hyperactivity is not his only problem. In addition to wild swings in blood sugar, it is of concern when sugary foods and beverages are replacing more nutritious foods.

Parents need to evaluate what their child eats each day to make sure they are getting all the nutrients they need for growth and development. Use [the U.S. Department of Agriculture web site], where you can compare your child’s intake to national recommendations, track daily intake, and get tips on food-related issues like how to get your child to eat more veggies and fewer sweets. To reduce sugar intake, try to get your child to eat more natural foods, like fruits, and less processed foods.

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