Expert advice on the diet tweaks to help manage ADHD among children

Experts believe that dietary changes can help manage ADHD symptoms among children. File image

Experts believe that dietary changes can help manage ADHD symptoms among children. File image

Published Feb 23, 2024


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most commonly occurring disorders affecting South African children and adolescents.

And while the chronic condition can be treated with medication and other interventions, studies show that healthy eating can also influence ADHD symptoms.

Rooibos tea range Laager Tea4Kidz’s partner dietician Mbali Mapholi explains that ADHD is a neuro-developmental condition which is characterised by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

“While the exact cause is complex and not fully understood, ongoing research explores the relationship between diet and ADHD symptoms.”

The dietician added that while children are not the same, some studies are suggesting that nutrient deficiencies, dietary patterns, food sensitivities, and blood sugar levels may influence ADHD symptoms.

“For example, addressing deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, avoiding potential trigger foods, and maintaining stable blood sugar levels through a balanced diet are important,” she said.

She stressed that it’s vital to approach dietary changes cautiously and in collaboration with a dietician.

“They should complement, not replace, evidence-based treatments like behavioural interventions or medication when necessary.”

Mapholi also believes that managing the diet of a child with ADHD involves making thoughtful and strategic choices to support their overall well-being.

“While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, here are some practical improvements you can consider,” she said.

Experts believe that dietary changes can help manage ADHD symptoms among children. File image

Here are Mapholi’s six dietary tips for young ADHD sufferers

1. Varied diet

Ensure your child receives a diet with a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats.

The dietician’s tip is that treats should not replace snacks.

“Limit processed foods, sugary snacks and carbonated drinks as these can contribute to rapid energy spikes and crashes if consumed as treats.”

2. Omega-3 fatty acids

Mapholi suggested including foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as fatty fish like pilchards and smoked salmon, seeds like flax seeds and chia seeds as well as nuts.

“Try delicious, quick smoothie recipes that the child will love, incorporating seeds or alternatively, cook pilchards pasta, a kid-friendly meal that boosts omega-3 intake.”

3. Protein-rich foods

Include protein in each meal from sources like lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes and nuts.

Mapholi recommended adding chicken strips or nuggets, boiled eggs, yoghurts, nuts, and nut butter into a child’s diet, in small, manageable quantities throughout the day.

4. Avoid caffeine and sugary beverages

The dietician stressed that excessive caffeine can contribute to restlessness and affect sleep.

“There are no clear caffeine recommendations for children and teenagers so it is recommended that they should not consume caffeine.

“Ensure your child stays hydrated by drinking enough water throughout the day as dehydration can affect cognitive function,” she said.

5. Iron-rich foods

Include iron-rich foods like lean meats, beans, lentils, and fortified cereals as iron is important for cognitive function.

“Incorporate canned red kidney beans in wraps, start the day with a bowl of fortified cereal with milk and a side of fruit, or add lentils to pasta dishes like bolognese or sloppy joes,” Mapholi said.

She added that the key is in serving these foods and allowing the child to share how they like their food served and cut.

6. Regular meals and snacks

Mapholi warned that children with ADHD may struggle to get through large quantities of food.

She suggested that parents and caregivers aim for regular meals and snacks to keep blood sugar levels stable, which prevents energy crashes that may affect attention and mood.