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It may be possible to better manage a child’s ADHD symptoms through diet. Before you roll your eyes, let me say that I’m all too familiar with quack doctors who try to blame food for every condition under the sun. As a child, I was put on a diet of rice cakes and weird foods in an attempt to cure recurring migraines, a regimen instituted by some alternative doctor who claimed to be able to tell I was allergic to certain foods just by bending my finger or pinching my arm. Overnight I went from a healthy, normal child to one with more than 100 supposed food allergies that vastly restricted what I could eat.

So when people say you can cure a child’s behavior through diet, no one is more skeptical than I am. But in the case of ADD and ADHD symptoms, there’s actually a biological reason to believe that a better diet might improve a child’s ability to concentrate.

Why a poor diet can worsen ADHD symptoms

Modern processed foods contain highly refined nutrients – usually consisting of sugars and carbohydrates – which are quickly digested and used by the body. Unlike natural foods such as fruits and vegetables, they are usually lacking fiber or protein that might balance out the carbohydrates or result in a steadier flow of energy. This results in a sudden surge of glucose to the brain, followed by a crash that leaves kids drained of energy. Low glucose levels can make it harder for children to concentrate, and this see-saw pattern might mimic the symptoms typically associated with ADD.

“Suppose you gave your twelve-year-old son a ‘whole-grain’ bagel with fat-free cream cheese and a glass of 100% juice for breakfast, as was encouraged by the Food Guide Pyramid,” says Dr. David Ludwig. “Though these foods might sound healthy, they’re highly processed and contain little protein and fat to counterbalance the fast-digesting carbohydrate. By mid-morning, the calories in his blood would probably crash, and stress hormones would surge – hardly a biological recipe for calm concentration and learning. Curiously, the stimulant drugs used to treat ADD have broadly similar biological actions to the stress hormone adrenalin. Could it be that these drugs help counteract the swings in blood sugar that occur on the highly processed diets children consume today?” (Ludwig, 2016, p. 65)

Studies have found that when students are assigned either a slow-digesting balanced breakfast or a fast-digesting high-carbohydrate breakfast, it leads to mental impairment that is very similar to ADD. Working memory declined, and it was harder to focus on difficult tasks. Attention and executive functioning decline by as much as one-third several hours after the meal. (Benton et al., 2003; Papanikolaou et al., 2006) Such a decline in cognitive functioning and the irritability low blood sugar can bring thus worsen the symptoms we associate with ADD.

It isn’t necessary to put a child on any type of specialized diet for ADD or ADD, but you should look to improve their diet in the following ways:

  • Cut out processed foods as much as possible
  • Replace these with whole, natural foods as much as possible, particularly fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans, which should comprise around half of what your child eats.
  • Try to attain a better balance between protein and carbohydrates. Ideally you want around 25-30% of your child’s calories coming from protein, or around 3 ounces of protein in every meal.
  • Adhere to the so-called ‘Mediterranean diet,’ which checks all of these boxes.

See also…


  • Benton, D. et al. (2003) “The delivery rate of dietary carbohydrates affects cognitive performance in both rats and humans.” Psychopharmacology, Vol. 166(1): 86-90
  • Ludwig, D. (2016) Always Hungry? New York: Grand Central/Hachette Book Group
  • Papanikolaou, Y. (2006) “Better cognitive performance following a low-glycemic-index compared with a high-glycemic-index carbohydrate meal in adults with type 2 diabetes.” Diabetologia, 49 (5): 855-862

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