Updated 05 September 2018

ADHD and diet

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects 3% or more of school-going children. Is your child one of them? Find out how the right diet can help.

From a dietary point of view, the best approach to managing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is to follow a healthy, balanced eating plan.

  • Enjoy a variety of foods.  
  • Make high-fibre, starchy foods (e.g. whole-wheat bread, brown rice, butternut, sweet potatoes) part of most meals.
  • Eat fish, chicken (without the skin), lean meat (e.g. steak with fat trimmed, lean mince, ostrich) or eggs daily.
  • Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit every day.
  • Eat dry beans, split peas, lentils and soya regularly.
  • Have milk, maas or yoghurt every day.
  • Use salt and foods high in salt sparingly.  
  • Eat fats sparingly and choose vegetable oils (e.g. avocado, olive oil) rather than hard fats.
  • Use foods and drinks containing sugar sparingly, and not between meals.
  • Drink lots of clean, safe water.

While it’s been suggested that certain colorants and preservatives in food, as well as refined sugar, may have a negative effect on children with ADHD, there hasn’t been sufficient evidence from scientific studies to prove that this is indeed the case. Food colorants may play a role in certain individuals and make their symptoms worse.

In these cases, it may be prudent to avoid foods that contain these substances. Research on sugar and preservatives have not really identified any direct link.

When it comes to managing a child with ADHD, it’s important to stick to regular mealtimes and to provide small portions of healthy, wholesome snacks in between meals. Also make sure there aren’t any distractions during mealtimes: turn of the TV and the radio, and sit together as a family to eat.

Talk to a dietician about possible nutrient deficiencies in your child’s diet, and work out a plan on how to rectify this. Supplementing your child’s diet with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, zinc, iron and/or magnesium may be beneficial.

Reviewed by Prof André Venter, Head: Clinical Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Free State. MB ChB, MMed, PhD (Canada), DCH, FCP (Paed) SA. July 2018.

Read more:

Can fish oils help boys with ADHD concentrate better?

Could the Banting diet help for ADHD?

ADHD linked to binge eating disorder in kids


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Ask the Expert

ADHD Expert

Dr Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) since 2008, currently based in Oude Westhof (Bellville). Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (USB) and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation ( She is passionate about corporate mental health awareness and uses her neuroscience background to assist leaders in equipping them to become balanced, healthy and dynamic leaders that take their own and their team’s emotional, intellectual, social health and physical needs into account. Renata is academically active and enjoys research and collaborative work, has published in many peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at local and international congresses. She is regularly invited to present at conferences and to engage with the media. During her post-graduate studies, she trained at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. Her awards include, amongst others, the Young Minds in Psychiatry award from the American Psychiatric Association, the Discovery Foundation Fellowship award, a Thuthuka award from the NRF, and a MRC Fellowship. She also received the Top MBA student award and the Director’s award from USB for 2015. She was a finalist for the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Award for 2016, and received the Excellence in Media Work award from SASOP during 2016.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules