The Effects of Diet on ADHD

The Effects of Diet on ADHDADHD is a hot topic in our country right now with ever-rising numbers of the disorder being reported. An even greater debate is going on in the ADHD community, however, about whether ADHD is curable or not. A faction of parents believe it’s the modern American diet that’s to blame for the disorder, while others stick solely to their children’s medicines. So who’s right? Is diet really to blame for ADHD? If it’s not, can it still play a role in the disorder?

To understand the role diet plays in ADHD, we must first understand what ADHD really is. ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, or ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder for individuals without the hyperactivity. The problem is that we don’t really know what causes ADHD to begin with.

Is Diet or Genetics to Blame?

The National Institutes of Mental Health’s article, “Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder,” says, “No one knows for sure [what causes ADHD]. ADHD probably stems from interactions between genes and environmental or non-genetic factors.” Mayo Clinic says the answer is, “not clear.” Psychology Today’s article, “Causes of ADHD,” says the cause is, “unknown.”

There are a few clues, however, that lead back to it being a heritable disorder. The New York Times article, “Nature, Nurture, and Attention Deficit,” includes the interview of Susan Smalley, Ph.D., a professor at the University of California, says that the heritability (passing the trait down from one generation to the next) of ADHD is 76%. She says her lab has found spots on four chromosomes that are highly likely to have genes that contribute to ADHD.

On a larger scale, MRIs (a type of brain scan) have revealed differences in the brains of individuals with ADHD. The ADHD Information Library’s article, “Neurology of ADHD,” shows noticeable differences in brain scans between two children without ADHD/ADD and two children with the disorder. The brain waves monitored were alpha and theta waves, and the difference is remarkable (You can visit the site to see the image.)

But what about food? Is there a way to cure this disorder by changing what our children eat?

Research and the ADHD Diet

There are many people who believe food is to blame for ADHD symptoms. Dyes, preservatives, sugar, fats, artificial sweetners, and other additives are the major culprits, they believe, in the inability of children with ADHD to focus, organize, and self-regulate emotions and reactions.

One such diet emerged in the 1970s, known as the Feingold Diet. The Feingold Diet still exists today, and is meant to try and curb behavior problems by reducing unnatural food intake in children who are sensitive to it. Similarly, more recent proponents of diet-curbed behavior, such as Dr. Lidy Pelsser of the ADHD Research Centre in the Netherlands, believe that 64% of children labeled ADHD are simply sensitive to certain foods, according to NPR’s article, “Study: Diet May Help ADHD Kids More Than Drugs.” Pelsser said that in this particular study, after five weeks of a restricted diet, teachers began to report huge behavioral differences.

The question is, however, is food the final cure? Research suggests it’s not. The genetic markers are too strong, and as the Dr. Pellser’s research showed, not all the children tested responded to the diet changes. After all, if diet alone caused ADHD, the majority of the modern world should be diagnosed with ADHD, and despite the high rates of the disorder (around 11% as of 2011, according to the Center of Disease Control), that’s still not the near 100% of the population it should be if ADHD were solely caused by food.

Even Dr. Pellsser admits, “diet is not the solution for all children with ADHD.” ADDitude, one of the leading organizations focused on ADHD says in its article, “ADHD Diet,”Poor eating habits don’t cause attention deficit Disorder…”, and Havard Health Publications’s article, “Diet and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder,” says, “Diet alone probably isn’t the driving force behind the multiple behavioral and cognitive symptoms that plague children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”

So Which Side is Right?

While diet doesn’t seem able to compete with genetics as the driving force behind ADHD, the research seems to still suggest diet can definitely affect the symptoms of ADHD. Some foods, Food Quality Brain Qualityaccording to what I’ve read over and over again, such as dyes, artificial sweetners, processed sugars, and bad fats, can worsen ADHD symptoms.

I’ve described before how my Tourettes is worsened by bad food. I’m particularly sensitive to processed sugars and bad fats. I’ve nearly sworn off all fried chicken because my tics go into overload after, and I feel for an hour like I’m on the verge of an anxiety attack. Candy is the same way. As a child, I would get headaches after eating those suckers I got from the doctor’s office, and now that I’m older, the sugar makes my tics worse as well.

Just as I feel much better when my brain and body are running on healthy foods, children with ADHD will probably feel fewer adverse affects when their bodies and brains are getting the nutrients they need…without the junk interfering. Here’s what the experts have to say about a balanced diet for individuals with ADHD.

  • Foods High in Protein – Foods high in protein were the first foods mentioned by WebMD and ADDitude. ADDitude says, “Protein-rich foods are used by the body to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals released by brain cells to communicate with each other.”
  • Essential Fatty Acids – Ranked up with high protein foods, omega-3 fatty acids are good fats that the body cannot create, according to Harvard Health Publications, so children need to ingest them through foods like cold-water fish and certain seeds and oils. MSN’s Healthy Living article, “5 Foods to Feed Your Child with ADHD,” says, “The right kinds of fat are needed to help the brain fire information efficiently from synapse to synapse. An ADHD child experiences a miscommunication between brain cells, says clinical nutritionist Marcia Zimmerman.”
  • B-Vitamins – ADDitude and MSN also reported that B vitamins can help lower stress (a common symptom in children with ADHD) and improve brain activity in children with ADHD. In addition, the US National Library of Medicine reports that in a study done on 40 children with ADHD, a consistent regimen of magnesium-vitamin B6 brought marked improvement, and when the vitamin was stopped, symptoms that had gotten better began to worsen again.
  • A low Intake of Processed Sugars and dyes was suggested by nearly all the resources I consulted. As I said before, my experience with processed sugar and Tourettes has shown that it makes my tics much more noticeable.

True ADHD has too much evidence in the world of genetics and brain scans to be caused completely by diet. It make sense, however, that a healthy diet will benefit any individual with the disorder, just as all individuals benefit from healthy diets. Your brain will only run as well as you feed it. Just as an athlete must eat the appropriate food before a competition, your brain will only run its best if you’re feeding it the best.

What’s your experience with ADHD and diet? Please share your thoughts in the Comment Box below. If you have any questions or tips, I’d love to hear them! I’ll also be sharing more informational links on in my weekly newsletter, so if you’re not signed up, you can subscribe here. And as always, thanks for reading

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