Eating Right with ADHD

Healthy diets can improve ADHD in children

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A lot of the symptoms and behaviors of pediatric attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) comes from food and diet. Doctors already know that food additives play a role in the disorder.

Paying attention to diet can go a long way toward controlling ADHD in children, according to a recent article in the journal Pediatrics. J. Gordon Millichap, MD, and Michelle M. Yee, CPNP, of Northwestern University Medical School wrote in the paper that the typical Western diet that is high in fat and refined sugars can worsen the condition of ADHD.

Avoiding such a diets can improve ADHD in children.

The federal health agency and most doctors subscribe to the belief that ADHD is best treated with a combination of medication and behavior therapy. But Millichap and Yee suggest that pharmacotherapy may not work for every child with ADHD, and these children may benefit greatly from a healthier diet.

Their recommendations are based on critical review of relevant study data on the role of diet and dietary supplements in treating pediatric ADHD, and their own clinical experience.

The authors recommend a diet that is:

  • Low in sugar
  • Free of food additives
  • Free of preservatives and oligoantigens
  • High in omega-3 fatty acids
  • High in fiber
  • Possible iron and zinc supplements

Millichap and Lee add that omitting items from a child's diet that are shown to predispose to ADHD or make the condition worse is perhaps the most promising alternative treatment to drugs. These items include fast food, red meat, processed meat, potato chips, high-fat dairy foods and soft drinks.

In fact, a 2011 Australian study of adolescent ADHD found a link between the disorder and a Western diet, but no such link between ADHD and a healthy diet rich in fish, vegetables, fruit, legumes, and whole grain foods.

"So often, the public discourse around ADHD breaks down into a false either-or choice," says Gina Pera, the author of a book and several websites about ADHD. “Do you treat with diet or medication? My answer for the last 12 years has been, for many people with ADHD, it’s both.”

The simple truth is that everyone with ADHD—and without—benefits from a healthy diet, Pera adds. "Especially one that pays attention to healthy fats, reduces inflammation and regulates glucose.

For all its bounty, the typical American diet is creating pervasive deficiencies in many key minerals (including magnesium, iodine, and iron) and contributing to the epidemics of hypertension, obesity, and diabetes. A healthy brain is part of a healthy body; it’s connected."

About 5.4 million children in the United States between the ages of four and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD—that's nearly 10 percent of American children as of 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The behavioral symptoms of the disorder include:

  • difficulty paying attention
  • frequent daydreaming
  • not seeming to listen
  • easily distracted
  • forgetfulness
  • inability to stay still; constant motion
  • excessive squirming or fidgeting
  • overly talkative
  • inability to play quietly
  • acting and speaking without thinking
  • difficulty taking turns or sharing with others
  • interrupting others

Pera says, "For many people, ADHD symptoms themselves such as disorganization thwart good health habits. For example, it takes strong planning and organizational skills to shop for, store and manage the ingredients of healthy meals.

Another common obstacle to healthy eating is a common tendency for people with untreated ADHD to gravitate towards stimulating and highly gratifying tastes and textures." This is something that parents could watch out for with their ADHD children.

Millichap and Lee admit that "in practice, additive-free and oligoantigenic/elimination diets are time-consuming and disruptive to the household." Therefore, they are recommended only for select patients failing to respond to other treatments, or whose parents are opposed to medication.

"A greater attention to the education of parents and children in a healthy dietary pattern, omitting items shown to predispose to ADHD, is perhaps the most promising and practical complementary or alternative treatment of ADHD."

Pera often calls ADHD “Extreme Human Syndrome,” because the symptoms are all typical human traits but in greater-than-average number or severity. "Therefore, you could say a diet that is good for the average human is particularly good for people with ADHD."