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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


Q: Are snacks important for managing children with ADHD and ADD?

Snacks are essential for all kids because they need to eat healthy mini-meals every few hours to fuel their activity and for growth. Kids with ADHD tend to be very active and impulsive, so parents should make eating healthy snacks easily accessible so the child can effortlessly grab a bag of cut-up fruit, veggies, or popcorn instead of reaching for a less nutritious processed snack.

Q: Is there any evidence that diets or supplements can help control behavior in kids with ADHD?

There are two theories being studied on this issue. Although studies have looked at the role of fish oil supplementation and its impact on behavior in children with ADHD, evidence is limited. One study found that school-aged children demonstrated improved learning with a trial of fish oil supplementation. Based on that study, researchers in another study found improvements in the behavior of children with ADHD with fish oil supplements on all parent scales of behavior -- but not from the teachers. A third small study found significant improvements in ADHD behavior on high doses of fish oil supplements.

The American Heart Association recommends everyone get two servings of fatty fish each week for the cardio-protective benefits of fish oil. The same holds true for children with and without ADHD and ADD. Still, we need more research before fish oil supplements can be used as a therapy to control behavior, and this should be discussed with your doctor.

The other area related to controlling behavior is the role of food additives and preservatives.

In one study, preschoolers who eliminated additives and preservatives in their diets improved, according to the parents -- but not clinically. In another, larger, well-controlled study of 100 children ages 3 and 8-9, researchers found the kids who ate preservatives (sodium benzoate) and a mix of food coloring additives were more hyperactive than those whose diets were free of these ingredients.

A review article evaluating the link between ADHD and food additives and preservatives surmised that some children with ADHD may be more sensitive to food coloring and preservatives, and elimination could improve behavior.

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