When your child has ADHD, working to improve their overall nutrition is a top priority. Boosting their nutritional intake can provide excellent benefits and enhance their total well-being and focus.
Although it can feel like a full-time job to keep up with the needs of a child who experiences ADHD, the benefits are well worth the effort. If you feel stuck or unsure how to start improving your child’s nutrition, reach out to Portland Pediatric and Family Nutrition. We’d love to walk alongside you in this journey.
The Critical Pieces
There are several vital components to nourishing your ADHD child. It is crucial to make sure they get the nutrition they need that can help them focus and have lasting energy.
However, making sure your child is eating is the priority. It takes precedence over a focus on specific nutrients. I never recommend removing all of your child’s favorites just to switch to foods high in nutrition. When you are ready to start introducing more nutrient-rich choices, here are some pieces to keep in mind:
1. Iron and Vitamin C
Iron helps transport oxygen throughout the body and is an important mineral for growth and neurotransmission. When a child is eating meat, chicken, and fish, they most often get the iron they need. These are all heme iron sources, coming from animals that have hemoglobin, and are easily absorbed.
When your child is a vegetarian or doesn’t like meat, their iron must come from non-heme sources, such as legumes, grains, broccoli, and tofu. The body needs vitamin C to boost non-heme iron absorption. So it’s essential to include excellent sources of this vitamin in their diet. Option include berries, citrus, red peppers, and broccoli.
This vital nutrient is crucial for brain development and is a key player in neurotransmission. Zinc helps boost the immune system and can impact the sense of smell, too. Low levels carry an association with inattention in children who have ADHD. Beans, nuts, whole grains, and meats are all fantastic sources of zinc for your child.
Magnesium is a player in over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body. It also is part of the body’s process of making the neurotransmitters involved in attention and concentration. This powerhouse nutrient even has a calming effect on the brain, making it ideal for children with ADHD. Top food sources for magnesium include green leafy vegetables, nuts, legumes, vegetables, and salmon.
There is a significant connection between the intake of omega-3 fatty acids and increasing focus for kids with ADHD. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an Omega-3 that is critical in nerve cell myelination and neural transmission. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) helps to improve circulation in the brain. Salmon and tuna are wonderful sources for Omega-3s for your child.
Protein is essential for everyone as it provides lasting energy compared to the quick, short-lived energy from simple processed carbs. For children with ADHD, this distinction is critical since simple carbohydrates can make them crash and burn. Excellent sources of protein include eggs, meat, fish, tofu, beans, nuts, peanut butter, and greek yogurt.
Fat is an essential macronutrient that, like protein, helps to provide lasting energy to the body. It is also an excellent source of Omega-3s and Omega 6s. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAS) are liquid at room temperature and found in fatty fish, flaxseed, nuts, and seeds.
Foods with fiber most often include whole grains that provide an extra nutrient punch with B vitamins. Fiber itself contributes to long-lasting energy. For excellent fiber-rich foods, choose whole grain bread, oatmeal, legumes, quinoa, and seeds. Fruit and nuts are fantastic choices also.
Reduce Processed Foods and Simple Carbohydrates
You may see a pattern here of long-lasting energy foods that are dense in nutrients. That’s not for the sake of being repetitive. It’s because that is what children need, with or without ADHD. Highly processed foods like crackers, chips, cookies, gummy snacks, soda, and packaged meals don’t contribute much to your ADHD child’s ability to stay focused and have stamina.
I encourage families to limit processed foods as much as possible since these choices have undesirable ingredients such as artificial colors and flavors. Some children with ADHD have sensitivities to these ingredients, further compounding their difficulties.
There is so much we don’t know about all the preservatives added to processed foods. Working to reduce your child’s consumption of those ingredients can make a big difference in their long-term health and ability to focus.
However, I never want a child to feel deprived and restricted since this often leads to sneaking behaviors and feelings of shame around food.
So, I encourage practicing an 80/20 plan. Offer nutrient-dense “growing foods” 80% of the time and the “fun” less nutrient-dense choices 20% of the time.
What If They Don’t Have An Appetite?
Medications to help manage your child’s ADHD can affect their appetite. Reduced interest in eating makes it even more difficult for your child to get the nutrients they need.
When your child has a low appetite, you may be concerned about their weight. You’ll need to maximize their nutrition intake at the meals when they feel hungry. For many children, their most hungry time is breakfast, dinner, and bedtime. A carefully-chosen bedtime snack can help make up much of the nutrition missed earlier in the day.
Lunch is generally the most difficult meal to get children with ADHD to eat. Work with your child to choose some favorite high-energy snacks to have midday. This plan can be a good solution for many children and takes away the expectation for them to eat a full meal at lunchtime.
If your child is losing weight or struggling to gain, be sure to reach out to their doctor. They may be able to offer a lower dosage of your child’s medication, an alternative medication, or an appetite stimulant. In addition, you can consider offering a smoothie or Carnation Instant Breakfast for a snack or a breakfast boost to get in more calories.
Reach Out For Help
As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the mom to a child who experiences ADHD, I know how difficult it can be to nourish your child. It’s an honor to support you on your family’s nutritional path and look forward to connecting. Reach out today to get started.