Fats Can Help With ADHD

Ever wonder if you could treat your child’s ADHD through diet? According to a recent Cochrane review, some evidence shows that addition of poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in the diet may improve symptoms of ADHD1.

According to American Psychiatric Association, 3-7% of school-aged children have ADHD; however, community samples estimate even higher rates of prevalence2. Rates of ADHD diagnosis is steadily increasing an average of 5.5% per year from 2003-20072. Many medications used to treat ADHD may or may not improve symptoms, and often have side effects such as loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping.

Previous studies have found that children with lower levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), in particular omega 3 PUFAs, exhibit more behavioral problems (including conduct disorder, hyperactivity/impulsivity, anxiety, temper tantrums and sleep problems) and learning difficulties3. Therefore, research on the impact of PUFAs on ADHD has become of great interest.

Both omega-3 and omega-6 supplementation, individually or in combination, have been analyzed for their impact on children with ADHD. No significant differences were noted between children supplemented with PUFAs (omega-6 only, omega-3 only, or omega 3/6 combination) in parent-rated and teacher-rated symptoms, inattention, or hyperactivity/impulsivity when compared to a placebo group1. However, the group taking combined omega-3 and omega 6 PUFAs demonstrated a higher likelihood of improvement in symptoms in comparison to the placebo group1.

The current American diet provides a much larger ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 than what is considered optimum for human health (1:1 to 1:4)4. Omega 3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties; therefore, should be increased in the American diet. Wondering what foods to eat?

Foods rich in:

Omega 3 – fish oil, green vegetables and some nuts and seeds (rich in alpha-lineoleic acid)

Omega 6 – meat, eggs, dairy, vegetable and seed oils (as well as whole nuts, seeds, and grains)

Further research is warranted to determine a definitive dosage and pathophysiology between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and children with ADHD.

By Shelley Carlson, MS, RD, LD 


1Gillies D, Sinn JH, Lad SS, Leach MJ, Ross MJ. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and adolescents. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012.

2CDC website. http://www.cdc.gov/NCBDDD/adhd/data.html. Accessed September 10, 2012.

3Stevens LJ, Zentall SS, Abate ML, Kuczek, T, Burgess JR. Omega-3 fatty acids in boys with behavior, learning, and health problems. Physiology and Behaviour. 1996;59:915–920.

4Richardson A. Omega-3 fatty acids in ADHD and related neurodevelopmental disorders. International Review of Psychiatry. 2006;18(2):155-172.

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