Nutritional Concerns for Children with ADHD

Nutritional deficiencies in children with ADHD, such as low iron, can amplify behavior problems

Author: Dr. Donna Schwontkowski (ret. D.C.), M.S. Nutrition, M.H.

There are many factors that can affect the severity of ADHD symptoms in children. However, did you know it's possible to control way the brain’s nerve cells work by using basic principles of natural healing, especially nutrition?

Artificial Colorings Do Matter

If you observed your own children and noticed that artificial food colors increased their hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention, you were right on track, even though scientists and doctors may have told you that you were wrong.

New evidence on the connection between artificial food colors and behavioral changes in children with ADHD was reported in the Nutrition Reviews journal this month (May 2013). Scientists at the Department of Nutrition Science at Purdue University found that children both with and without ADHD are reacting adversely to these food chemicals.

Now the scientists are beginning to ask the right question: Are these food chemicals acting as toxic agents, sensitizing agents, or substances that decrease nutrient levels?

When the Brain Doesn’t Work Right, Think Nutrition 

Whenever there’s a brain issue, including ADHD, one of the first things to evaluate is the role of nutrients and then correct it if necessary. Vitamin B12, thiamine, niacin and zinc have long been associated with poor cognitive performance.

Iron is also important for cognitive functions, and researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine discovered that children with ADHD had significantly lower ferritin levels than those in a national sample. They concluded that low iron levels may be a risk factor for cognitive, behavioral and psychiatric problems in pediatric populations.

Three research studies about children with ADHD found that if the children have restless legs and sleep disorders, they are most at risk for an iron deficiency. And now, experts are reporting it’s possible that an iron deficiency could decrease the effectiveness of drugs given to children with ADHD. Foods high in iron include red meats, eggs, blackstrap molasses, liver, oysters, leafy green vegetables and legumes.

Fats are Critical - Never Give a Child a Low Fat Diet

Omega 3 fat deficiencies have also been found to be correlated with learning and behavior disorders and ADHD. Children who had higher levels of omega 3 fats were less often anxious and shy and had better word reading skills than those with lower levels. Those with higher omega 6 fat levels tended to be poor readers, poor in spelling and vocabulary and had poor attention spans. Many parents have taken their children’s omega 3 levels into their own hands and started giving them omega 3 supplements, especially if the children don’t like the taste of fish.

Consider the Overall Dietary Pattern

On another note, researchers in Iran studied the overall diet pattern of those with ADHD. They found four major dietary patterns: healthy, Western diet, sweet diet and fast food diet. Those who consumed a fast food diet or a diet filled with sweets were at higher risk to develop ADHD. These findings tell us there is an interaction with diet and brain symptoms, and suggest that by changing our children's diet, we may be able to impact ADHD.


Mechanisms of behavioral, atopic, and other reactions to artificial food colors in children. Nutr Rev 2013 May;71(5):268-81.

The iron status of children and youth in a community mental health clinic is lower than that of a national sample. J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol 2013 Mar;23(2):91-100.

Iron and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder: What is the empirical evidence so far? A systematic review of the literature. Expert Rev Neurothera 2012 Oct;12(10):1227-40.

Dietary patterns and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder among Iranian children. Nutrition 2012 Mar;28(3):242-9.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids, cognition and literacy in children with ADHD with and without learning difficulties. J Child Health Care 2011 Dec;15(4):299-311.

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