The ADHD – Diet Connection

Topics: Wellness and Health

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): an abnormal defect of moral control in otherwise high functioning children.

Two generations ago that was the definition and the belief. Today, we know better. And we know more. Lots more.

What is ADHD?
Today, ADHD is viewed as a multifaceted condition triggered by varying behavioral, biological and environmental factors, including certain foods and food additives.

The hallmarks of ADHD are an inability to focus and/or impulsivity that is not developmentally typical for a child’s age. Symptoms fall on a spectrum from predominantly inattentive on one end to predominantly hyperactive at the other end. Certain criteria must be met for a doctor to diagnose a child as having ADHD.

The Role of Food in ADHD
While there are many ways to use “food as medicine,” for some children, food and its additives can actually trigger ADHD. Because diet plays a crucial role in ADHD, it’s important to examine issues such as food intolerance, food allergy, and the additives and chemicals associated with food production.

There are various tests to determine both food allergy and intolerance. Your doctor can advise you about the most appropriate test and then help with interpretation and treatment.

Artificial food colors (AFCs) are widely used by manufacturers to create visually attractive food products. The FDA certifies, for purity and safety, the use of these dyes. However, the amount certified has risen from 12 mg/capita/d in 1950 to 62 mg/capita/d in 2010.

AFCs are not natural to our food system, and surely not to our bodies. These artificial molecules can bond to food or body proteins, which means they can “hide in the body,” avoid detection, and disrupt the immune system.

This can have significant immunological consequences that affect gastrointestinal function, auto-immunity and even brain and behavior. For some children, ADHD can be triggered and worsened by synthetic colors, flavors and preservatives.

The Feingold Diet for ADHD
In the 1970’s, Benjamin Feingold, M.D. studied the effect of food chemicals and the role of nutrition in addressing learning disabilities and behavior disorders. He pioneered an elimination diet that removed food dyes from the diets of children.

Over the years, Dr. Feingold extended the elimination diet to include petrochemical preservatives BHA and BHT. He has reported rates of 30-70% improvement in children with ADHD, depending on the diagnostic criteria used and adherence to the diet.

Over the decades, studies in Europe and the U.S. have tested the Feingold and similar diets. While research has not established a direct cause-and-effect, the evidence indicates restriction/elimination diets have value and can bring about a change in behavior if properly followed.

Families have expressed concerns that children will dislike the Feingold Diet, but there are a wide range of tips available for adjusting recipes and food selection, making it easy to incorporate changes and still enjoy favorite foods

In addition to eliminating AFCs, BHA, BHT and food allergens/intolerances, additional support may be needed for some children. This may include educational adjustments, behavior modification or counseling, nutrition supplements, and additional dietary changes.

Like any medical or behavioral intervention, treatment benefits will vary based on many factors, such as when a child is diagnosed, the ADHD symptoms present, co-occurrence of other immune or medical conditions, and ability to adhere to dietary changes.

As research continues to explore the relationship between diet, food and behavior, we anticipate that many more children – and adults – with ADHD will be helped by the medicinal power of food. Spending time in nature can also help with ADHD, a topic I’ve addressed before in a talk on Nature Therapy, which you can view here.

If your family struggles with the consequences of ADHD, ask your doctor or holistic practitioner for suggestions and guidance. You do not need to walk this path alone.