The Role of Nutrition in Treating ADD/ADHD

By June Rousso
June Rousso
June Rousso
I am a New York State licensed psychologist and a nutritional consultant with an M.S. degree in holistic nutrition. My interests have expanded over the years to the field of nutrition, which I often integrate in my work as a psychologist. I love to write and educate people about nutrition so that they can make more informed choices about their health. I believe that dietary and lifestyle changes are so important in our lives to support a healthy lifestyle.
September 8, 2014 Updated: September 9, 2014

This week’s blog is on the role of nutrition in treating ADD/ADHD. Most treatments have focused upon medications, such as stimulant drugs. Millions of children are treated with medication and while successful for some, in many instances, there are unpleasant side effects. These can include nervousness, anxiety, palpitations, headache, insomnia, and loss of appetite.

From a nutritional perspective, mineral deficiencies have been found in children with ADHD, including magnesium and zinc. Foods high in magnesium include bran breakfast cereal, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, and black beans. Foods high in zinc include beef, lamb, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and lentils. All of these foods should be part of an ADD/ADHD diet.

Supplementation with magnesium and zinc has yielded positive results in treating ADD/ADHD. Patrick Holford, in his book, New Optimum Nutrition for the Mind, reported one study where supplementation with magnesium and vitamin B6 was ten times more effective than Ritalin. In other research, eighty percent of the children stopped taking Ritalin after supplementing with magnesium for as little as three weeks. Some studies have found a correlation between magnesium levels and severity of ADHD symptoms.

According to Holford, many children with ADD/ADHD have symptoms associated with essential fatty acid deficiency. These are fats that your body needs to function, but which only can be obtained from food. Symptoms of deficiencies include excessive thirst, dry skin, eczema, and asthma. Omega 3 fatty acids can be obtained from oily fish such as salmon, sardines, herring, and mackerel. Walnuts, flaxseeds, and hemp also are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Ground flaxseeds and hemp can be added to smoothies, which may have greater appeal, especially to children. Omega-3 fatty acid foods should be a regular part of an ADD/ADHD diet.

A link between ADHD and allergies has been found in many instances. Once these allergies are discovered and the target foods eliminated, symptoms can subside. The most common allergens are wheat, dairy, corn, soy, citrus, chocolate, peanuts, and eggs. Children also can have allergic reactions to food additives and flavorings as well as MSG. One way to test for allergies is through an elimination diet. While restrictive, it can provide valuable information about allergic reactions. For children, two weeks is an optimal time while adults may need up to three weeks. At the end of the elimination period, each food should be re-introduced one at a time and symptoms monitored for a few days. Completely eliminate those foods causing allergic reactions.

Foods rich in salicylates, chemicals found in certain fruits and vegetables, also can contribute to ADHD symptoms. Fruits very high in salicylates include dried fruits, avocados, cranberries, dates, grapes, oranges, pineapple, plums, prunes, strawberries, and tangerines. Vegetables very high in salicylates include peppers, radishes, tomatoes, and tomato products. Almonds, peanuts with the skin on, chewing gum, honey, luncheon meats and seasoned meats also are very high in salicylates. For a more comprehensive list, refer to the Salicylate Food Chart at

Eliminating refined sugar and processed foods that often contain refined sugar also is recommended in treating ADD/ADHD from a nutritional perspective. All of those sugary drinks and sugary processed foods can wreak havoc for many children and adults. Sugar from low glycemic fruits can be consumed in moderation, but always along with a protein to slow down sugar absorption and to maintain blood sugar level balance. A few nuts with a piece of fruit make a good combination. Some low glycemic index and low salicylate fruits include bananas (but not overly ripe), golden delicious apples, and pears.

While addressing ADD/ADHD nutritionally involves some real efforts, they are worthwhile. Children and adults are being introduced to foods that have healing properties and supplementation to fill in nutritional gaps. Consuming more whole foods with lots for green leafy vegetables along with fruit, whole grains, nuts/seeds in moderation also introduces children and adults to a healthier lifestyle.