ADHD & Diet: What’s the Connection?

There’s a growing suspicion that diet plays a key role in magnifying kids’ ADHD symptoms. But is the link for real?

Recent news suggests yes—and no. Earlier this year, The Lancet published findings from a Netherlands study showing that a controlled diet can improve behavior. According to the study, 64% of kids with ADHD are actually experiencing hypersensitivity to food. “In all children, we should start with diet research,” said Dr. Lidy Pelsser of the ADHD Research Centre in the Netherlands.

Pelsser’s findings would seem to support those of former Kaiser Permanente pediatrician and allergist Dr. Ben Feingold. In the 1970s, Dr. Feingold developed an eating plan that eliminates artificial colors, artificial flavors, and certain preservatives to mitigate ADHD symptoms. Today’s Feingold Association is “dedicated to helping children and adults apply proven dietary techniques for better behavior, learning and health….”

Not so fast…

In March 2011, the F.D.A. refused to ban artificial colorings, even while agreeing that “For certain susceptible children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder … the data suggest that their condition may be exacerbated by exposure to a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, synthetic color additives.”

What’s a parent to do?

Dr. Mark Stein
, director of Child and Adolescent ADHD Clinical Research at the Institute of Juvenile Research at the University of Chicago, says that while diet is important, behavior modification and medication are evidence-based treatments.

“For most children with ADHD, diet plays very little role in their behaviors,” Stein says. “There’s no harm in trying an elimination diet, but I wouldn’t put a lot of effort into it.”

Similarly, pediatric allergist Dr. Alan Resnick notes that Feingold’s results from the 1970s have yet to be duplicated. “No one else can reproduce Feingold’s study,” Resnick says, suggesting that the findings were simply too good to be for real.

The ‘Good News Diagnosis’

However, integrative medicine practitioner Dr. Cathie Dunal insists that in clinical studies, ADHD kids do improve with dietary changes.

“When sugar is reduced or taken out of the diet, behaviors are minimized,” Dr. Dunal says. “Sometimes parents won’t mention a dietary intervention but teachers and tutors will remark on behavioral changes. There are people with food sensitivity. I call it the ‘Good News Diagnosis.’”

Stein, Resnick and Dunal agree on one point – good nutrition and a healthy diet are critical to a child’s health. “If you’re suspicious that diet plays a role, talk to your pediatrician,” Dr. Stein recommends. Further interesting information about proper nutrition and diet can be found from Digital Health Post.