Brain food for kids

Better Focus, Attention and Behavior for Kids with AD(H)D?

Better Focus, Attention and Behavior for Children with AD(H)D?

Young boy face

Our brain thrives on healthy food. When given the right nutrients it is able to focus better, improve attention and behavior.

In this article we’ll dive into the benefits of an optimal functioning brain and what foods are ideal for children with attention deficits.

  • Research shows that children with ADHD tend to have a poorer diet than average. The reason is not necessarily bad parenting. Kids with ADHD can be picky eaters. To be sure kids eat, parents are sometimes trying to soothe difficult behavior by offering snacks instead of healthy alternatives;
  • Secondly research showes they often need extra nutrients and;
  • they have different levels of the enzym DPP-IV.

The DPP-IV enzym explained:

Children (and adults) with AD(H)D produce less DPP-IV enzym than average. This proteolytic enzym has over 60 functions in our body. It is mainly produced in our gut and pancreas and is responsible for breaking down food containing proline like gluten (in wheat) and casein (in milk).  When natural opioid foods like milk and wheat are broken down, exorphins appear. The DPP-IV enzym will clear them up. Bread, pasta, cookies, cereals, milk, soy, mushrooms and spinach are classic examples of foods that are broken down with the DPP-IV enzym. Too much exorphins in our body however damage the endorphin system in the long run. This will disrupt the functions of dopamin, serotonin, insulin, cortisol as well as our immune cells.

Food that cannot be broken down due to lack of DPP-IV enzym, causes the endorphin receptors to become resistant. In other words, the DPP-IV enzym protects our endorphin system.

What happens when people don’t have enough DPP-IV enzym? 

  1. Exorphins will not be broken down efficiently and they enter the blood circulation. They behave as fake neurotransmitters. This will cause our body to release endorphins and dopamin and then it will shut of the release of endorphins (the feel good substance). This creates a need to eat some natural opioids like bread or cheese again to keep up the levels of endorphins and dopamin. This causes people with a lack of DPP-IV enzym to eat the food they shouldn’t consume in the first place. rush of endogenous opioids

Food can as such influence behavior, focus and attention.

2. Another reason why food can negatively impact ADHD, is through dynorphins. A dynorphin is an opioid that activates KOR endorphin receptors. However these KOR receptors de-activate other endorphin receptors. Same problem! Dynorphins are activated by exorphins from food but also by Ritalin, Levodopa, certain drugs,  smoking, alcohol, stress, … Dynorphins slow down the production of dopamin and  DPP-IV as well as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which is supposed to protect our brain again neurodegeneration.

A healthy diet can help our children to feel good, get along with others and grow well. It should consist of little to no foods that need to be broken down by the DPP-IV enzym. It takes several months for the body to clear the remaining exorphins if this means you need to switch to a new diet. Don’t switch overnight if your child is already very thin and a picky eater. Especially children on medication can have their hunger suppressed till the medication wears off in the evening. 

How does an ideal diet look like?

  1. Specific nutrients in the diet are found to be low in children and adults with AD(H)D like fiber, magnesium, omega 3, iron and zinc. 
  2. Added sugar, sweeteners, food dyes and additives are no-go’s. 
  3. Regular eating-patterns encourage growth, behavior, focus and satiety.

Why sugar and additives? DPP-IV brakes down the GLP-1 hormone. This hormone stimules the release of insulin when bloodsugar levels become too high. Too little DPP-IV means more activity of the GLP-1 hormone. This can lead to insulin-resistance and ultimately to diabetes.  Research showed that additives like MSG (monosodium glutamate) drop the production of endorphins by a whopping 70%. This impacts the release of dopamin as well. 

Why do children with AD(H)D need a specific diet? 

Research has shown that good nutrition benefits all children, not just with AD(H)D. The brain needs energy to grow and to develop. Childhood is crucial and the foundation for adult health. Carbohydrates (carbs), fats (fatty acids) and proteins (amino acids => neurotransmitters) contain all the energy and nutrients to help the brain focus, pay attention and behave optimally. 

As we have seen, eating for children with AD(H)D, isn’t always easy to make the right choices. The DPP-IV enzym, the gut microbiome and the medication can influence the appetite. Some medication causes stomach pain or nausea, leaving kids uninterested in food. Bad food habits in the family can add an extra challenge to deal with AD(H)D and results in unnecessary stress. 

 Feeding children the right food, can help children feel and function better. And this is our ultimate goal, thriving children.

What are the specific nutrients we should focus on?


Fiber can be found in vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds as well as brown rice. It will also help digestive issues if any as well as enough water.


Magnesium is best know for its soothing effects of nerves and muscles but it has many other functions. It is necessary for healthy bones and an optimal blood flow. It processes nutrients from food and much more. People under stress and children with ADHD have lower levels of magnesium than average. A diet rich in magnesium is beneficial. Magnesium is catabolic as a supplement and best taken in the morning.


ALA (α-Linolenic acid), EPA and DHA are 3 variants of omega 3 fatty acids. They are essential and this means we are unable to make them in our body and we need to incorporate them in our diet. Omega 3’s are turned into resolvines. The name says it all, to resolve. They resolve inflammation and infection but are also responsible for the permeability of the cell membranes (in the brain). If the cell membrane is rigid, the information cannot pass as easily as when the cell membrane is souple and fluid. 

Low levels of omega 3 have been related to difficulty with reading, concentrating and reading.

We need our daily portion of omega 3 like: linseed oil, hemp oil, walnuts, grinded flaxseed, salmon, tuna, mackerel, … A full list can be found in wikipedia here.


Iron is needed to help the brain reach its full capacity to develop. Especially in the early years, a lack of iron may have a negative impact of the development of the brain.

A lack of iron doesn’t only make you feel tired, your brain and organs lack oxygen. This leads to poor learning. Also your immunity suffers. Researchers even say that children with iron defiency show more severe symptoms. It appears 84% of the children had an iron deficiency. “The children with the most severe iron deficiencies were also the most inattentive, impulsive, and hyperactive.” 

Good sources of iron can be found in beef, liver, beans, lentils and dark leafy greens. Best is to take some vitamin C at the same time like fruits (oranges, tomatoes, berries, kiwis, …) to absorb more iron.

If necessary, a doctor can propose a supplement or baxter. Supplements are sometimes hard to digest and it can take months to recover from a severe iron deficiency.


Zinc plays a very important role in the brain and central nervous system. It is a co-factor in over 100 enzymes, or catalysts for chemical reactions. 

Without zinc, we have trouble metabolising melatonine, better know as the sleep hormone. However we need melatonin in the regulation of dopamine. Being a nightowl is sometimes just a deficiency of zinc and dopamine.  Too little zinc can lead to jitters, concentration impairment as well as lack of appetite (especially in the morning). Zinc repairs the skin and is ideal for acne and eczema.

Studies have shown that many children with ADHD have lower levels of zinc than healthy ones. 

Zinc can be found in food like : beef patty, lamb, pork, shellfish like Alaska king crab and mussels, lentils, beans, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, hemp seed, cashews, almonds, dark chocolate and if you don’t mind oysters!

If you consider taking a supplement, remember that too much zinc suppresses your immune system. Best is to take max 15 a day to stay safe.

Food and supplementation are just one way to boost dopamine. If you’d like to learn more about AD(H)D and specific lifestyle advise for yourself or your child, you can reach me at

I’m a health educator specialised in chronic conditions through nutritional, natural and lifestyle solutions.

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