Answers to Questions about ADHD, Diet and Dairy

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is recognized as the most common neurodevelopmental disorder in children.1 Parents of children with ADHD often wonder if food choices can make a difference and may have questions about milk products. It’s important for parents to know that it is not advised that children with ADHD avoid dairy foods. In fact, milk and milk products are a nutritious part of healthy dietary patterns for children with ADHD.2

Un enfant distrait qui regarde dans le vide tandis qu'un tuteur est assis à ses côtés avec un livre ouvert.

Understanding ADHD 

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.

In practice

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.

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