My child was diagnosed with ADHD, can diet help?

This two part series on ADHD was written by Ashley Turner, a dietetic intern at Calgary Family Nutrition.

If your child has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) you might be overwhelmed and bombarded with information about what you should and shouldn’t do. There is a lot to consider when your child is diagnosed, and nutrition is one of them. This two-part series on nutrition and ADHD will help you understand the different aspects of ADHD and how to manage food and nutrition for your child.

Misconceptions about an ADHD diagnosis

ADHD is a neurodevelopment condition typically diagnosed in childhood. ADHD is often misconceived as kids bouncing off the walls and sometimes falsely labels children as lacking discipline or simply being bad. This is not the case!

Children diagnosed with ADHD often have an inability to focus at school, they may forget to do a task they are supposed to, or they may be distracted along the way of performing a task. ADHD doesn’t always look the same from one person to the next. Symptoms, medications, and treatment may be different, and ADHD is not a one size fits all condition.

Side effects of medications that may affect food and nutrition

Medication used to treat ADHD can improve quality of life for kids with ADHD and their families. Unfortunately, you might notice some medications have less than desirable side effects. Your child may be prescribed stimulants (most common), non-stimulants, and/or antidepressants. Most children are prescribed stimulants. Almost all stimulant’s side effects include loss of appetite and weight loss. Stimulants, non-stimulants and antidepressants may also cause other symptoms that can contribute to a lack of interest in eating, examples include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Stomach pain
  • Dry mouth
  • Headaches

My child doesn’t want to eat

Whether or not your child is taking medication to treat ADHD, they may not feel like eating. Many kids take their medication in the morning and will have side effects like loss of appetite for the duration the medication is working in their body, which is often until they come home from school. When this is the case, it is important to provide your child as much nutrition as possible when they do feel like eating.

This may be before they take their medication in the morning, when they get home from school, or they may not be hungry until later. All the above is OK! What is most important is to figure out when your child is hungry and make sure you provide the food they need. Choosing nutrient dense options when your child is hungry will help to nourish their body and help the intake they missed at other times. Another option is including a bedtime snack, this may be beneficial for your child as it is another chance to provide nutrient dense options.

My child doesn’t want to eat at regular mealtimes

Scheduled eating patterns are important for kids diagnosed with ADHD, taking medication or not. Ensure that mealtime encourages attention to eating their meal but even if your child is not eating at these times, getting them to the table is the goal and establishes routine. Encouraging eating 3 meals and 2-3 snacks throughout the day is great, but only as your child can tolerate, don’t force them. Again, based on when your child is feeling hungry, the schedule might look a little different. Scheduling helps build appetite and encourages your child to eat. Scheduled eating patterns are associated with positive behaviour at meals, positive relationship and interaction with food, and a safe environment while eating.

My child doesn’t eat when they are at school

Whether or not your child with ADHD is taking medication, kids may feel they do not have time to eat or there may be distractions from eating while they are at school. Providing nutrient dense foods whenever possible and scheduled eating times as mentioned above are important, but what about when kids are outside the home? Try sending them with foods that are easy for them to eat on the go and that are nutrient dense. This may include their favourite nutrient dense nut and seed bar or a nutrient dense yogurt drink. Try to find options packed with nutrients rather than packed with sugar and fat.

My Child is underweight

As a parent, it can be very stressful if your child has trouble with appetite and their physician is concerned about their weight. To help increase weight try foods high in calories that are also nutritious. These types of foods include:

  • Eggs
  • Beans
  • Peanut butter
  • Nuts
  • Chicken drumsticks or thighs
  • Full fat yogurt
  • Unsalted cottage cheese
  • Potato
  • Sweet potato
  • Filled pastas and gnocchi
  • Muffins
  • Bagels
  • Edamame (soy beans)
  • Dried fruit and canned fruit
  • Avocados

These are just some examples of foods you can include to increase calories in a nutritious way.

However, it isn’t always about more food, but more calories. Try adding butter to vegetables and grain products, substituting whole milk in recipes, adding sauce, butter and cheese to pastas, and fruit dips with whole milk yogurt. These are all ways to help increase caloric intake in a smaller way for your child.

My child isn’t eating enough and is a picky eater

Picky eating can stem from sensory sensitivity to texture, smell or appearance. It is another aspect associated with ADHD that can make it difficult for you to help your child to get the adequate nutrition they need. Focusing on nutrient dense calories your child is willing to eat and a scheduled eating pattern is key. There are some nutrients of concern discussed in the second blog of this series that if possible, can be included in your child’s foods as well. If you can include some of these for your picky eater, this is a bonus! If not, that is OK too. Again, focusing on them eating nutrient dense foods they are willing to eat when they feel like eating is most important. Please see our picky eating blog posts for more ideas and support if your child with ADHD is also a picky eater.  

There is a lot to consider when your child is diagnosed with ADHD. Whether or not the diagnosis is new, there is a lot of information to navigate through and nutrition plays an important part.

Nutrition doesn’t have to be overwhelming or difficult! Consider meeting with one of the Registered Dietitians at Calgary Family Nutrition here to discuss nutrition for your child.

Please see part 2 of this series on ADHD and nutrition focusing in on specific nutrients, foods, and overall diet.