Healthy eating may help ADHD kids

2012-01-09 09:30

Washington - Simply eating healthier may improve the behaviour of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder if therapy and medication fail, said a study published on Monday in the journal Paediatrics.

Researchers, however, said that their review of recent controlled scientific studies had shown conflicting evidence on the impact of supplements and restricted diets - in some cases they were no better than the placebo effect.

Nutritional interventions should therefore be considered an alternative or secondary approach to treating ADHD, not a first-line attack, said the review by doctors at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago.

"Supplemental diet therapy is simple, relatively inexpensive, and more acceptable to patient and parent," than strict additive-free diets that have been popular in the past, said the study.

"Public education regarding a healthy diet pattern and lifestyle to prevent or control ADHD may have greater long-term success."

Unknown causes

The study reviewed research published on the sugar-restricted, additive-free Feingold Diet, megavitamin therapies, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and the suspected link between ADHD and a "Western-style" high fat, low-fibre diet.

Three to 5% of US schoolchildren, or nearly five million youths, are diagnosed with ADHD, which involves hyperactive behaviour, inability to pay attention, and impulsivity. It is often treated with stimulant medications such as the controversial Ritalin drug.

The precise causes of ADHD are unknown, although studies have pointed to hereditary factors as well as social and environmental influences. Eating foods high in sugar and fat may exacerbate symptoms, some research has shown.

But while proposed interventions such as giving iron supplements or cutting out additives and food dyes have soared in popularity in recent years, the Paediatrics article said there is little solid science to back up those claims.

For instance, the much-hyped Feingold Diet which advocates no red or orange colour dyes in food as well as no apples, grapes, deli, sausage or hot dogs, was highly touted in the 1970s and 80s for improving symptoms in more than half of ADHD children.

"Controlled studies failed to confirm the effectiveness of the diet to the extent claimed," said the Paediatrics review, also noting that the regimen was very difficult for many parents to follow.

Similarly, studies focused on getting rid of potential allergens in the diet such as wheat, eggs, chocolate, cheese and nuts, have shown limited success with some ADHD kids "but a placebo effect could not be excluded", said the study.


Even when it comes to sugar and diet soda, two elements which many parents believe can trigger hyperactivity in children, scientific studies have been unable to prove a definitive link.

"The majority of controlled studies fail to demonstrate a significant adverse effect of sucrose or aspartame," said the study.

The authors noted that avoiding high sugar foods in young children "may prevent diet-related exacerbations of ADHD".

But when parents restrict a child's sugar intake in order to ward off bad behaviour, their inherent belief that it will work is likely to blur any objective assessment of whether it works or not.

"In practice, the link between sugar and hyperactive behaviour is so universal in the opinion of parents of children with ADHD that no controlled study or physician counsel is likely to change this perception."

The suspected role of zinc and iron-deficiency deserves further study, while megavitamin therapy has not been proven to work and may even be dangerous in the long term, it said.

For many parents, simply paying more attention to feeding their kids a healthy diet, rich in fish, vegetables, fruit, legumes, and whole-grains, is likely to help.


"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," said the study.

Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioural paediatrics at Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Centre of New York, who was not part of the study, said more research is needed into dietary treatments for ADHD.

"We have more questions than answers," he said. "It is unfortunate that more research is not being done to examine the role of dietary interventions for the treatment of ADHD.

"Since some of these nutritional interventions cannot be patented, drug companies are not willing to underwrite the costs of the needed research."

  • Philip - 2012-01-09 09:55

    'if therapy and medication fail, said a study published on Monday...' !? Seems weird to apply external interventions while one is still eating foods that have zero nutrition as well as toxins! Its not just about sugar either. Its about toxins in processed foods (eg sulphur dioxide, MSG etc), its about undetected allergies to things like gluten and cassein (in milk) etc. Eating junk, too much protein and generally poor nutrition while taking drugs for ADHD is like trying to stop a leak in your roof by placing a bucket under the drip. Do the reading. There are plenty of books by people with PHds who have healed themselves and patients from a multitude of illnesses and diseases by simply improving diet, lifestyle (and stress).

      Stuart - 2012-01-09 10:05

      Hello....natural/ethnomedicine has been saying this for years (but diet as a first resort) gee when scientists finally get the message they always think that they are the discoverers of something new! Nice response Philip

      ludlowdj - 2012-01-09 11:09

      In a world where close on 80% of the population lives below the bread line, nutrition is the last thing available to them. Modern food process as you say result in 90% of the processed food we buy being not only unhealthy but in some cases even dangerous for human consumption, a debate that has gone on for years with manufacturers in reality simply working out how much "bad stuff" they can put into food to bulk it without killing anyone.

  • Richard - 2012-01-09 10:23

    "Three to 5% of US schoolchildren, or nearly five million youths, are diagnosed with ADHD, which involves hyperactive behaviour, inability to pay attention, and impulsivity." - So then surely 3-5% of US schoolchildren are just normal kids... Hyperactive, inability to pay attention, impulsive... Are these symptoms to a problem?

      Piet - 2012-01-09 11:21

      Richard, ek's bevrees jy's reg. Klink soos my normale 9 jarige seuntjie. En daar is sekerlik niks met hom verkeerd nie. Ek moet byvoeg, hy kry ook baie liefde en gesonde, liefdevolle dissipline. En 'n gesonde dieet.

  • Eugene - 2012-01-09 10:55

    In my personal experience with kids, the vast majority of them who supposedly suffer from ADHD are just unlucky: they have parents that have no idea how to discipline kids, so now they get drugged into submission.

      Randomhero6661 - 2012-01-09 11:10

      your comment is null and void . my bro suffers from adhd and my parents know very well how to deal with his behaviors and therefore discipline him. you obviously have a "personal experience" with kids. WOW!

      ludlowdj - 2012-01-09 11:12

      Spot on Eugene, the bleeding hearts brigade have made it almost impossible to discipline kids, and the lack of self control or discipline in the younger generation has resulted in an entire generation of genetically flawed and undisciplined kids who will continue the cycle as adults. The other scary aspect is that the increasing incidents of children born with even minor defects like this speaks directly to out genetic lines at base level.

      janine.meyburgh - 2012-01-09 15:38

      So you beat the absolute crap out of the child, you verbally abuse them constantly because they JUST WON'T LISTEN - then what, what are your suggestions, in your expert opinion Eugene? How do you drum discipline into a child with a very real disorder?

      Eugene - 2012-01-10 07:53

      Janine and Randomhero: I am not arguing that there isn't such a thing as ADHD, only that it is vastly overdiagnosed, probably for no other reason than to sell drugs. I am well aware of the fact that there are kids who genuinely struggle to focus, though I hasten to add that this should also not be seen as an excuse for rudeness or disruptive behaviour. As teacher I have plenty of experience with kids. I have had kids in my classes who really have ADHD, whose parents did not necessarily have them on any medication, and who, despite this, behaved very well, even though it was necessary to repeat things a lot because of their wandering attention. This never bothered me either - it is perfectly natural even for completely normal kids to sometimes get bored and start staring out the window. At least it doesn't disrupt the class to the point where the kids who WANT to learn can't focus. But I have also had pupils who, despite being on medication, kept on rudely disrupting classes. Theirs were also the parents who never attended parent's evenings at school, never paid their school fees on time, never participated in any school activities, and clearly were just not involved in their kids' lives in any way, shape or form, but could afford expensive drugs to use in lieu of structure and discipline. If your kid is diagnosed with ADD, get a second and third opinion before considering drugs.

      janine.meyburgh - 2012-01-10 11:17

      Absolutely, Eugene, I do agree with you that often medication is recommended prior to confirming that the child does in fact have ADD or ADHD. I also believe that it is imperative that parents visit a Psychologist for a scholastic assessment prior to resorting to the drugs, but to with hold the medication, when a child genuinely needs it, is really cruel. I have seen unbelievable turn-arounds in kids who truly struggled before. Drugs should not be prescribed willy nilly, in fact there should be a number of assessments done prior to prescribing the drugs.

      Annelie - 2012-02-18 18:40

      Do you have first hand experience or a child with ADHD? Unfortunately in my experience, a child with ADHD is not in all incidents just naughty or ill-disciplined. Discipline is one single element which with ADHD is an extreme challenge! Sometimes discipline and rules have to be bent in order to give the child, and the parent, a change to breath and live.

  • TheWatcher - 2012-01-09 10:59

    While there are many factors contributing to ADHD diet is one of them. Even normal kids can get uncontrollable when they eat too much sugar. Also reducing sugar content and artificial additives can only be a good plan for anybody of any age.

      Karen Dreyer Janisch - 2012-01-09 19:56

      Hi TheWatcher, what do you define as "normal" My children are ADD and ADHD and as "normal" as they come with high IQ's. So am I to understand that you are saying that add or adhd children are "abnormal". Maybe you should consider using your words more carefully, as I said my kids are normal except they have ADD and ADHD.

      Joao - 2012-02-17 10:41

      @TheWatcher : Nope, you are wrong. Read and watch the documentary made by the BBC about sugar/hyperactivity. The link to be abbreviated guide to the documentary is ... Please also Google and read research on sugar and hyperactivity.

  • cindydebruyn - 2012-01-09 11:41

    I'm 31 and suffer from ADHD. I'm not a 'naughty' child. My mother was very strict, but also fair. She always explained why anything wasn't allowed or wrong. I got through school quite easily, but I was always the kid with the 'potential' and no action. To dismiss ADHD as just being naughty children is an insult. Be grateful that you don't live with a constant URGE to move, that you can sleep because your mind doesn't work constantly - and that's just the start...

  • janine.meyburgh - 2012-01-09 12:37

    This is a very old story and I think that it is a little irresponsible to believe that food alone can cure ADD or ADHD. It is a very REAL illness and if medication fails then perhaps it isn't ADHD, perhaps it is a discipline issue. Whatever the reasons, be responsible and have your child assessed, a good diet alone is NOT a cure for ADHD or ADD. It is as bad as saying my child needs glasses, but don't worry, I am feeding him loads of carrots - very sad indeed!

      Philip - 2012-01-09 14:48

      Janine, nobody is saying food can cure ALL illnesses. The point being that one should START with diet before throwing other (expensive) things at the problem like therapy and drugs (the latter which of course come with their own side-effects which then need 'treatment'). Research has found that people in the East had none of the diseases that we Westerners experience, until we blessed them with our fast food industry about 15 years ago.

      janine.meyburgh - 2012-01-09 15:21

      Philip, I am all for food and a good diet, don't get me wrong, but we waste valuable time in a childs school career, by trying this or that before seeing professionals and doing proper assessments. This may be true about the Eastern diet, but remember ADD and ADHD weren't really diagnosed prior to the 1960's. As parents we try everything and feel absolutely guilty if we are told that our child suffers from ADD or ADHD and will try everything possible prior to resorting to the drugs. The media doesn't blow up the fact that some kids may need prescription specs, but parents are faced with a barrage of negative information about medicating their children for ADD or ADHD. Do you know that there is now a scan that can be done of the brain, which can make a positive diagnosis? Perhaps they should use the scan to measure the real effectiveness of diet on ADD or ADHD. Sorry, I used to be like you and I ensure that the 1st step is a healthy diet, but thereafter the only thing that one can do is get the child or adult assessed and treat the disorder as best one can as in the end you certainly don't want to lose out on valuable learning for a child who suffers with the disorder.

      Karen Dreyer Janisch - 2012-01-09 19:44

      I have two daughters that have adhd. Diet is strictly not for every child but it is an individual thing. My experience with my children is that medication has done them wonders and diet has played a very small role. Having said this,it should be considered before ruling it out altogether.

  • TJ - 2012-01-10 09:02

    Something not addressed here by anyone so far are those who have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (or FAS). I have a wonderful foster son who has FAS. The symptoms of FAS often INCLUDE ADHD. I am now saying that all people who have ADHD have FAS but what I am saying is that SA has one of the highest incidence in the world. FAS kids also have very little impulse control and battle to understand concepts. About 2/3s of children in foster care or adoption have FAS. So many kids who end up in gangs or jail have FAS. The kids are often labled as being 'problem' kids. However, it is not there fault that they are the way they are. Their mothers' made the choices before these kids were even born. They have brain damage that is irreversible. There are little to no support structures in place for these kids although, with the right help, education and councilling, these kids can achieve beyond their potentials. The mother's body can process and expel the alcohol from her system. However, for the unborn baby, there is no such luck. Whatever goes into the mother's mouth, goes to the baby as well, destroying developing andgrowing brain cells. There are no 'safe' quantities of alcohol while pregnant. FAS is the ONLY form of brain damage that is 100% preventable but also 100% incurable. THERE IS NO CURE, EVER! It is something that these kids live with for the rest of their lives. Study up on it.

      TJ - 2012-01-10 09:04

      Sorry - "I am now saying" should be "I am NOT saying...".

      janine.meyburgh - 2012-01-10 11:28

      Thank you for clarifying - I know quite a few teetotallers who have kids who suffer with ADD and ADHD.

  • pat.pugheparry - 2012-01-10 09:10

    ADHD is not about physical hyperactivity. Only about 25% of ADDers are physically hyperactive. Yet this is where all the focus lies. Diagnosed at age 51 after being the perfect bright quiet child, reliable employee, wife and mother I crashed. Years of trying to fit in and do the "right thing" took its toll. ADHD Coaching and appropriate medication has changed my life. A pragmatic sensible diet and a multi-disciplinary approach to managing this neurological condition (ADHD is never cured) is the only way to go. Also no-one has only ADHD. Eating disorders, OCD, depression, anxiety, addictions are many of its bedfellows. see for more info.

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