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My child has ADHD. What foods should she avoid?

The question: Is there a special diet for a child with ADHD?

The answer: Unfortunately, there's no solid proof that a special diet – or supplement for that matter – will consistently improve the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which include inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. That said, some dietary adjustments may benefit some children with ADHD and are worth a try.

Certain food dyes and food allergens (corn, milk, fish, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, oranges) may cause symptoms. When researchers removed these foods from childrens' diets their behaviour improved. When they were added back to their diets, behaviour significantly worsened. Food additives shown to exacerbate symptoms include sodium benzoate, tartrazine, quinoline, sunset yellow and allura red.

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If you think certain foods affect your child's behaviour, eliminate them one at a time to see if symptoms improve. Elimination diets that remove many suspect foods should be used under the guidance of a registered dietitian to ensure your child's nutritional needs are met.

While research doesn't support the widespread notion that sugar and aspartame cause or worsen ADHD symptoms, it's still wise to limit your child's intake of sugar from candy, soft drinks, fruit drinks and sugary desserts since they may contain preservatives and dyes linked with hyperactive behaviour.

There is some evidence – albeit not a lot – to suggest that kids with ADHD may be deficient in magnesium and zinc. That doesn't mean getting too little of these minerals causes ADHD symptoms though. But it's certainly worth increasing your child's intake of them since both help brain chemicals work properly.

Magnesium-rich foods include wheat germ, sunflower seeds, almonds, legumes, figs, spinach and Swiss chard. The best sources of zinc are beef, pork, yogurt, wheat germ, bran cereals, baked beans, chickpeas, lentils, and pumpkin seeds. I also recommend that kids with ADHD take a children's multivitamin that contains zinc.

Iron, which is critical for brain function, may also play a role in ADHD. A 2004 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that kids with ADHD were more likely to have low iron stores in the body and those who were the most deficient had more severe symptoms. You might ask your doctor to test your child's iron levels to determine if they are low. Iron supplements should not be used if your child's iron levels are normal.

Consider adding a fish oil supplement to your child's daily nutrition routine. Omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), play an important role in cognition and behaviour. A few studies have also found omega-3 supplements to improve symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity.

Most experts agree than a daily intake of 250 to 500 milligrams of DHA plus EPA combined is a reasonable target for children. Children who have a fish allergy or a bleeding disorder, should not take fish oil.

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If your child is taking a medication to help manage ADHD symptoms, do not use dietary modification or supplements as a substitute without first speaking to your child's doctor.

Leslie Beck, a Registered Dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct lesliebeck.com.

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