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Nutrition strategies for the young swimmer with ADHD

by ZwemZa on July 30th, 2016

eatingJason was a 14-year-old swimmer with ADHD. His biggest challenge was maintaining a healthy weight and eating a healthy diet. Although his parents felt swimming had a positive impact on his daily living, including improving his attention and learning, they also struggled with meeting his nutritional needs, especially with getting enough calories and minimizing unhealthy treats.
Jason didn’t have a big appetite and was frequently uninterested in eating, stating he wasn’t hungry. His parents were thrilled when he showed an appetite and interest in eating, so they allowed most of his food requests. He was getting a lot of sweets and highly processed foods. Jason was thin, and although he performed in the pool, his energy level varied during the day.

Children and teens with ADHD are often managed with medications that suppress their appetite. As a result, parents may see a pattern of lowered appetite during the day when children are at school (when the medication has its greatest effect), and bursts of appetite later in the day when the medication wears off. Although appetite is naturally enhanced with exercise, it can be challenging for the child or teen with ADHD to match their nutrient requirements when medications negatively affect their appetite and eating.

Additionally, growth and swimming place a hefty demand on calorie and nutrient requirements for the young swimmer. It can be a challenge to manage appetite, eating, and caloric demands, but with the following strategies, young swimmers with ADHD can overcome these challenges:

Use Structured Meals and Snacks

Offering the young swimmer a regular time for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks allows opportunities for eating and matching nutritional needs. Even if the swimmer isn’t hungry, this framework for meals and snacks helps create a rhythm for eating, which can help draw out the appetite. Meals and snacks should occur every 3 to 4 hours and should represent the components of a healthy, balanced meal (protein, grains, dairy (or non-dairy substitute), fruit and vegetables), offered as solid food or liquids (ie., a smoothie).

Add a Bedtime Snack

When children and teens sleep, growth hormone circulates and promotes overall growth, including muscle repair and new development. Sleep time is growing time! A bedtime snack provides calories and nutrition that won’t be burned off with activity. It’s an easy way to build in more calories and nutrition in the diet. Keep it healthy! Try a bowl of cereal and milk, a fruit smoothie, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Take Advantage of Hunger 

Many kids and teens with ADHD have predictable times during the day when they are known to be hungry. Parents want to capitalize on this. For example, if the appetite is high after school, offer a robust snack or a fourth meal such as nut butter on a bagel or leftover pasta with meatballs and sauce.

Tame the Processed Food

When kids with ADHD become hungry, they may eat anything they can get their hands on. This may end up offsetting a healthy diet to one that is full of sugar, artificial colors, additives and preservatives. Research tells us that some children and teens with ADHD are sensitive to these food components, leading to changes in behavior. Keep an eye on the types and quantities of processed food the young swimmer eats, and try to keep them to reasonable amounts, such as one or two a day (this is a good rule of thumb for all young swimmers). If a child demonstrates sensitivity to any of these food additives, it’s best to avoid them.

Address Nutrient Gaps in the Diet 

Some children and teens with ADHD may miss out on certain nutrients because they skip whole food groups, such as vegetables, or they don’t meet the USDA minimum intake for nutrients. Research also highlights certain nutrients that may be deficient or inadequate in children and teens with ADHD, such as iron and zinc. Young swimmers with ADHD may benefit from a multivitamin and mineral supplement offering 100% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). Always check with your nutritionist or doctor before adding a micronutrient supplement.

Every bite matters in the young swimmer with ADHD. Good nutrition can optimize growth and athletic performance, attention and focus, and keep the swimmer energized throughout the day.

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian, childhood nutritionist, and youth sports nutrition expert. She is the author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. Learn more about Jill at and check out her free list of 70 Awesome Pre-Workout Snacks for Kids.

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