Food choices in ADHD, autism & other neurodevelopmental disorders

Children’s learning disorders can be genetic, environmental and even caused by smoking during pregnancy. In some cases behavioural and learning problems are strongly linked with the diet, and there are very few cases where the diet won’t result in at least some improvements in your child’s behaviour and concentration.

The brain is a complex organ that requires specific nutrients including carbohydrates, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and water, in order to function optimally. Often children’s diets are quite seriously depleted in these important nutrients, and the impact this has on the body and brain is varied and can be detrimental to their learning and development, as well as setting them up for health problems later in life.

Persuading a child to eat healthily can be a challenge, which even the most determined parents battle with. What may seem like the obvious answer – limiting or restricting their consumption of unhealthy foods – can have unexpected consequences, sometimes increasing children’s desire for those ‘banned’ foods.[1] One study found that 4-6 year old girls whose snack consumption was restricted would eat those foods if allowed to, even if they feel full. [2]

In order to get away from the notion that vegetables and healthy options are a punishment, parents should avoid presenting them as a requirement before treats and deserts are allowed. If we use deserts as a bargaining tool, we are only heralding the ‘treats’ as the most desirable foods, which will become their food of choice as they grow older and have greater control over their own diets. Furthermore, parents are often only able to influence their children’s diet when the child is fed at home; all the more reason not to focus on banning unhealthy foods, but rather the benefits of a healthy and balanced diet.

Incorporating healthy foods into the diet

Healthy foods needn’t be seen as less desirable than fruit, vegetables, fish or indeed any other food. Vegetable crudités can be rather tasty when accompanied with exotic harissa-infused yogurt dips or humous, as can marinated olives, fruit salad and a host of other foods. Getting adventurous with foods, and involving your children in the cooking, can help to promote the desirability of eating a range of foods, thereby making mealtimes easier for parents and ensuring children consume a variety of nutrient-rich foods.

Minimising junk food – healthy alternatives

Everyone likes a sweet treat now and again, and you needn’t be a fantastic cook to look out for alternative ways of satisfying cravings for cakes, crisps and chips:

  • Instead of deep-frying chips, try baking sweet potato wedges in a dash of olive oil, perhaps some rosemary and seasoning and bake until crispy on the outside.
  • When baking cakes and biscuits ground almonds can be a healthier alternative to processed white flour. Not only is it easier on the digestion, but it’s less carbohydrate-rich as well as a source of good fats.
  • Agave syrup and xylitol are low-GI alternatives to sugar. These are more expensive, but then sugar shouldn’t be a regular part of the diet anyway.

Supplementing the diet

Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and fish oil are known to have important roles in the brain and cardiovascular systems, immune function, inflammatory response and many other physiological functions. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential for maintaining healthy cell membranes, as well as the effective transmission of messages between neurons in the brain. Given that the brain controls every function in the body via a network of complex electrical messaging, fatty acids are crucial for overall good health.

When there’s a shortage in the body of important omega-3 fatty acids, communication between the cells in our brain ceases to operate properly which, in the case of the dopamine pathway (the neurotransmitter implicated in ADHD, and the basis for which Ritalin has been formulated)  this could affect functions such as attention and concentration – both fundamental factors in ADHD and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

The role of the omega-3 EPA in learning, attention and concentration is well documented, with controlled trials reporting improved behaviour at home and in the classroom after supplementation with concentrated omega-3 EPA fish oils. By restoring the levels of fatty acids in the brain, cells are able to communicate properly, and neurotransmitters resume healthy levels. Of the omega-3 fatty acids, there is strong evidence to suggest that it is EPA, not DHA, which is most beneficial for these conditions.

Vegepa Chewables

Vegepa Chewables

Encouraging your children to eat oily fish can be difficult, and so supplementation with purified fish oil offers a convenient and safe solution (read our manufacturing process which details how we purify our fish oils and remove traces of impurities ordinarily found in fish). With its high EPA content we recommend our Vegepa Chewables, which contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in precisely the right ratio to restore a healthy balance in the body.

Our Vegepa Chewables are naturally flavoured with orange and are free from salicylates (chemicals found in oranges and orange products which can trigger ADHD symptoms).

Physical signs of omega-3 deficiency

There is substantial supporting evidence which suggests that deficiencies of omega-3s are associated with childhood ADHD. [4] Several findings indicate that physical symptoms, behavioural problems and learning disorders are linked with low fatty acid levels.

The table below lists symptoms to look out for which may indicate low levels of essential fats:

Physical Rough or dry skin; dry hair; dandruff; excessive thirst; frequent urination; soft or brittle nails; dry eyes.
Visual Poor night vision; sensitivity to bright lights; visual disturbances when reading.
Emotional Excessive mood swings; sleep problems.
Attentional Poor concentration; distractibility; poor memory.

Deficiencies in minerals such as zinc are also not uncommon; since zinc is a co-factor for the utilisation of fatty acids in the body, and is required for the enzyme conversion of EPA into anti-inflammatory eicosanoids, when there is a mineral deficiency this can result in inflammatory problems such as eczema, psoriasis and poor healing, which can be rectified by eating the right foods, or supplementation.

In order to find out conclusively if your child has a fatty acid deficiency, a simple non-invasive breath test can be taken by children and adults. Alternatively, a doctor can take a blood test for a fatty acid profile.


[1] Fisher, J.O., Birch, L.L. (1999) Restricting access to palatable foods affects children’s behavioural response, food selection and intake. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 69: 1264-1272.

[2] Fisher, J.O., Birch, L.L. (2000) Parents’ restrictive feeding practices are associated with young girls’ negative self-evaluation of eating. J Am Diet Assoc 100: 1341-1350.

[4] Colquhoun, I. and Bunday, S. A lack of essential fatty acids as a possible cause of hyperactivity in children. Medical Hypotheses, 1981; 7: 673-9. Stevens LJ, Zentall SS. Deck JL, Abate ML, Watkins BA, Lipp SR, Burgess JR. Essential fatty acid metabolism in boys with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1995; 62: 761-8. Stevens LJ, Zentall SS. Abate ML, Kuczek T, Burgess JR. Omega-3 fatty acids in boys with behaviour, learning, and health problems. Physiol. Behav. 1996; 59(4/5): 915-920.

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