Dietary tips for children with ADHD

Make thoughtful choices to support your kids' overall wellbeing – dietitian

Sibongile Mashaba Deputy News Editor
Dietitian Mbali Mapholi shares six dietary tips for children with ADHD.
Dietitian Mbali Mapholi shares six dietary tips for children with ADHD.
Image: Supplied

People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are often dismissed as having consumed too much sugar.

But dietitian Mbali Mapholi says contrary to the belief, ADHD is a disorder which commonly occurs in children and adolescents believed to be a complex combination of genetic, environmental and neurological factors may contribute to its development.

“ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition characterised by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity,” says Mapholi.

“It is important for people to understand that ADHD is complex and symptoms may vary from person to person. Individuals with ADHD may require understanding and support rather than judgment.

“They need to be supported without everything being underplayed as they just consumed too much sugar but rather identified as a medical condition.”

What are some of the key symptoms of ADHD?

Hyperactivity, which is excessive fidgeting or restlessness as well as difficulty engaging in activities quietly.

Impulsivity, which includes impulsive decision-making without considering consequences and interrupting or intruding on others' conversations or games.

Inattention, which is difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities and it sometimes can be frequent careless mistakes due to lack of attention to detail.

She says people need to understand ADHD and support individuals with the disorder.

“Clear communication is important, patience, as well as setting realistic expectations. Establishing routines and providing a structured environment. Encouraging the use of tools like calendars and reminders.”

She says people with ADHD may be at an increased risk of experiencing other mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, but not always.

“ADHD is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder rather than a disease. It falls under the category of mental health conditions because it primarily involves challenges related to cognitive and behavioural functions.

“The term ‘mental health issue’ is often used broadly to encompass various conditions affecting mental wellbeing, including neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD. Consulting with a clinical psychologist is important to help individuals with ADHD navigate their emotions to diagnose.”

Mapholi says ADHD is considered a chronic condition that often persists into adulthood.

“While symptoms may change over time, many individuals continue to experience some degree of ADHD-related challenges. Early intervention and appropriate management or support strategies can significantly improve outcomes.”

Mapholi, who is a partner dietitian with Laager Tea4Kidz, says while the disorder can be treated with medicine and other interventions, studies show that diet can also influence ADHD symptoms.

“While the exact cause is complex and not fully understood, ongoing research explores the relationship between diet and ADHD symptoms. While no child is 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. However, it's crucial to approach dietary changes cautiously and in collaboration with a dietitian, as they should complement, not replace, evidence-based treatments like behavioural interventions or medication when necessary.

“Managing the diet of a child with ADHD involves making thoughtful and strategic choices to support their overall wellbeing. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, here are some practical improvements you can consider,” she says.

Mapholi shares six dietary tips for children with ADHD:

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

Omega-3 fatty acids: Include foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish like pilchards and smoked salmon, seeds like flaxseeds and chia seeds, and nuts like walnuts. Tip: Try delicious, quick smoothie recipes that the child will love, incorporating seeds. Alternatively, cook pilchards pasta, a kid-friendly meal that boosts omega-3 intake.

Protein-rich foods: Include protein in each meal from sources like lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes, and nuts. Tip: Add chicken strips/nuggets, boiled eggs, yoghurts, nuts and nut butter into their diet in small manageable quantities throughout the day.

Avoid caffeine and sugary beverages: Limit caffeine intake as 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. Tip: Add Laager Rooibos tea which is caffeine-free and naturally sugar-free, as a versatile beverage served hot or in delicious homemade Rooibos tea. You can add fruits and herbs to the tea.

Iron-rich foods: Include iron-rich foods like lean meats, beans, lentils, and fortified cereals as iron is important for cognitive function. Tip: 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. The key is in serving these foods and allowing the child to share how they like their food served and cut.

Regular meals and snacks: Children with ADHD may struggle with getting through large quantities of food, so aim for regular meals and snacks to keep blood sugar levels stable, preventing energy crashes that may affect attention and mood. Tip: During mealtimes, offer food before a drink; for example, during breakfast, offer breakfast first and then, when the child is satisfied, encourage them to have their Rooibos tea.

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