ADHD is a highly hereditary condition, characterized by a number of symptoms including inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.1,3 Due to differences in the way the brain functions, people with ADHD can have trouble focusing, prioritizing, managing time, completing tasks, learning and getting along with others. ADHD tends to persist throughout life and is estimated to affect approximately 5% to 9% of children and 3% to 5% of adults.1
Healthy lifestyle habits and ADHD
Studies suggest that healthy lifestyle habits are associated with a lower risk of ADHD.4,5 For example, a study of 7 to 11-year-olds assessed intakes of water, soda and sweetened fruit-like or energy drinks, multivitamin use, reading, screen time, physical activity and sleep.4 This study found that children with ADHD were almost twice as likely to report fewer healthy lifestyle habits than those without ADHD. Looking at specific lifestyle habits, children with ADHD reported fewer hours of physical activity and were more likely to drink artificially sweetened juice as compared to their peers without ADHD. They were also more likely to report engaging in 2 or more hours of screen time per day and less likely to report reading for more than one hour a day.
Like most children, children with ADHD and hyperactive behaviour generally benefit from eating a well-balanced healthy diet that includes milk and milk products.
Steps parents can take to help children with ADHD:2
- Focus on offering a well-balanced variety of nutritious foods to provide the energy and nutrients children need for healthy growth and development;
- Include omega-3-rich foods such as fatty fish, omega-3 enriched and eggs, and walnuts, flax and chia seeds (since some children with ADHD have low levels);
- If suspected, record any reactions to food additives such as artificial food colours or preservatives and discuss with a doctor;
- Encourage and prioritize other healthy living habits including regular physical activity, limits on screen time, and a good night sleep.
Healthy eating matters
Healthy eating habits help provide children with the nutrients and energy they need to grow, learn and play. Attention to nutrient intakes is particularly important since children with ADHD may not get enough of some of the nutrients they need such as omega-3 fats and minerals such as iron, magnesium and zinc.2 A 2019 meta-analysis of observational studies concluded that healthy dietary patterns were associated with a lower risk of ADHD and hyperactivity.6 A recent case-control study also found that children with healthy eating patterns that include dairy products, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and vegetable oils were less likely to have ADHD.7
Milk products and healthy eating
Researchers have explored associations between healthy eating habits and behaviour, attention and learning in children with ADHD.4 A cross-sectional study of 986 school-aged children explored dietary behaviours, ADHD and learning disabilities.8 This study found that balanced diets, regular meals, and higher dairy food and vegetable intakes were associated with fewer problems with children’s behaviour, attention and learning.
Food allergies and sensitivities
Parents may also wonder if eliminating certain foods could have a favourable effect on their child’s behaviour. Studies have investigated whether food allergies or sensitivities to food additives such as certain artificial food colours or preservatives play any role in ADHD.9,10 A 2017 meta-analysis found no link between food allergy and ADHD based on the existing evidence.9 However, children with ADHD were more likely to have asthma and experience common allergic symptoms. A 2017 review exploring the efficacy of elimination diets also concluded “there is no convincing evidence for food allergy or hypersensitivity to be involved in ADHD”.10
A healthy balance
Like all children, it’s important for those with ADHD to eat a healthy balanced diet. Canada’s Food Guide includes milk products as protein foods among the nutritious foods that are the foundation for healthy eating.11 Milk products make an important contribution to Canadians’ magnesium and zinc intakes – two of the nutrients children with ADHD may not get enough of.
- Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada. What is ADHD. Accessed November 30, 2021.
- Dietitians of Canada. Eating guidelines for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). PEN (Practice-based evidence in nutrition) Factsheet. Accessed November 30, 2021.
- KidsHealth.org. ADHD – for parents. The Nemours Foundation. Accessed November 30, 2021.
- Holton KF and Nigg JT. The association of lifestyle factors and ADHD in children. J Atten Disord 2020; 24:1511–1520.
- Loewen OK et al. Adherence to life-style recommendations and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a population-based study of children aged 10 to 11 years. Psychosom Med 2020;82:305-315.
- Del-Ponte B et al. Dietary patterns and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Affect Disord 2019;252:160-173.
- Abbasi K et al. Dietary patterns and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder among Iranian children: A case-control study. J Am Coll Nutr 2019;38:76-83.
- Park S et al. Association between dietary behaviors and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and learning disabilities in school-aged children. Psychiatry Res 2012; 198(3):468-476.
- Miyazaki C et al. Allergic diseases in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry 2017;17:120.
- Ly V et al. Elimination diets’ efficacy and mechanisms in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry 2017;26:1067-1079.
- Health Canada. Canada’s dietary guidelines for health professionals and policy makers. Canada.ca/Food Guide 2019. Accessed November 30, 2021.