Food Sensitivities and Behaviour in Children

It is safe to say that poor nutrition negatively impacts everyone's health. However, the specific relationship between nutrition and ADHD is still unclear in terms of the scientific literature. While each child with ADHD is unique in their health and symptoms, what can’t be argued with though is the benefits that a nutritious, healthy diet what have on your child’s life. It is important to understand that ADHD requires a multi-modality approach and nutrition alone won't be the only factor that you need to consider to support your child, but it is a very big part of the picture and a great place to start. Here’s what you need to know about supporting your child’s ADHD through dietary interventions. 

Foods to Avoid 

The research has demonstrated that nutrition and eating habits alone do not cause ADHD. However, that being said, there is evidence to show that children with ADHD may benefit from more targeted dietary approaches that exclude certain foods. The items most commonly discussed in regards to worsened ADHD behaviours are sugar, additives, preservatives, food colourings and flavour enhancer, which are all prominent factors in the typical western diet. These items have all been highlighted due to their excitatory effects in the brain, which may contribute to heightened ADHD behaviours in children such as overactivity and restlessness. 


  • Avoid pre-packaged and processed foods containing added sugars such as lollies, cakes, sauces, pastries, cereals, soft drinks, juices, yoghurts, ice creams and ready meals

  • The World Health Organisation recommend no more than 25g per day for those 2 years and older. 4 grams of sugar is equal to 1 teaspoon, so 25 grams of sugar is therefore equivalent to 6 teaspoons. 

Refined Carbohydrates

  • Refined or simple carbohydrates include sugars and refined grains that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients. 

  • These include white bread, pizza dough, pasta, pastries, white flour, white rice, sweet desserts, and many breakfast cereals

Additives and Preservatives 

  • Additives - E102, E104, E107, E110, E112, E123, E124, E127, E128, E129, E132, E133, E142, E151, E155, E160b (annatto)

  • Preservatives - Benzoates (E210-213) mainly in drinks and sauces; Sulphites (E220-228) mainly in sausages, soft drinks and dried fruit; Nitrates (E249-252) mainly processed meat - especially bacon ham

Flavour Enhancers

  • MSG - found in take away food, pre packaged meals, stocks, pre-made sauces, processed meats and fish, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, yeast extracts, crisps and chips

  • Hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP) - added to savoury processed meats

…. Basically, if it comes in a packet and contains a long list of ingredients, an ingredient you find difficult to pronounce, a number or added sugar it is probably best you avoid it. 


Allergies and Intolerances 

Despite anecdotal reports of an increased prevalence of food allergies among ADHD patients systematic reviews examining the association between ADHD have been inconclusive. However, many children with ADHD may be at risk of potential allergies and intolerances being overlooked due to the cross over between some of the symptoms of intolerances and ADHD behaviour. Unmanaged allergies and intolerances may not only affect a child’s ADHD but may also impact their long term health. For this reason, it is advised that parents closely monitor their children for the intake of certain foods that correlate with worsened behaviour. 

Allergies and intolerances that have been detected in children with ADHD include gluten, wheat, dairy and salicylates. It is important to note that allergies, intolerances and elimination diets should always be discussed and investigated under the supervision of a health care practitioner. 

Foods to Include

When you remove added sugars, preservatives and additives what are you left with? Whole foods. And that is exactly want you want your child to be eating, especially if they have ADHD. You should be focusing on making sure your child diet is made up of the following foods. 


  • As many different varieties as possible 

  • A mix of raw and cooked vegetables 

  • Legumes and beans also count as vegetables 


  • Whole fruit 

  • Note: children with diagnosed salicylate intolerances may need to remove some fruits


  • A combination of protein from animal and plan-based proteins

  • Animal proteins from pasture-fed and free-range animals

  • Plant proteins from beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and non-GMO soy products


  • Spelt, oats, brown rice, buckwheat, barley, bulgar, millet, whole wheat bread, pasta or crackers 

Healthy Fats 

  • Oily fish, avocados, nuts and seeds, dairy products from pasture-raised animals 


The great thing about transitioning to a healthier way of eating is that when you start focusing on filling the diet with nutritious, delicious food, there is less room for other things to sneak in that may aggravate their symptoms. This is important as children on heavily processed and refined diets are missing out on essential nutrients needed for healthy growth and development. Additionally, research suggests that children with ADHD may be more likely to have certain nutritional deficiencies and may require greater amounts of certain nutrients such as zinc, iron, B6 and omega-3 fatty acids. 


In conclusion, a diet full of too much sugar, too many refined foods, artificial foods and food substances, too few fruits and vegetables and a lack of omega-3 fatty acids, have all been suggested as potential factors that can aggravate ADHD. While it won't be possible to ensure your child eats perfectly all the time, the basis of their diet should always be whole-food-based, and specific attention may need to be paid to certain nutrients and food groups in some cases of ADHD. 


Written By Brittany Darling



Brittany Darling