Diet and ADHD: What's the Connection?

| Pregnancy & Parenting

daydreaming boy

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is the most commonly diagnosed childhood mental disorder and, according to the Journal of Attention Disorders, has a prevalence of about 5% in children. More frequently now than ever before, parents have been searching for a way to treat the symptoms of ADHD without relying on medication like Ritalin.

The belief that a child's diet can help treat symptoms has been examined again and again by medical professionals. While it has been widely accepted that a child's diet is not the driving force behind ADHD, there has been renewed interest recently in examining what kind of implications diet can have on the disorder.

two kids eating sweets

Like many other medical professionals studying the effects of diet on ADHD, the Journal of Attention Disorders asserts that the disorder is most commonly associated with what is known as the "western diet," rather than a "healthy diet." A "western diet" consists of fast food, processed food, fried and refined foods, sugar, foods with higher fat and saturated fat content and higher levels of sodium.

The consumption of this kind of food eliminates important micronutrients. This limitation of necessary nutrients, including Vitamin C, iron, and Vitamin B, inhibits brain function, especially in regards to attention and concentration.

According to Harvard Health Publications, many children who suffer from ADHD often have mineral and vitamin deficiencies. It is often helpful for children to take vitamin supplements that will replenish their depleted stores of micronutrients. However, experts often warn against over -supplementation, since there is a risk of megadoses (an overabundance of vitamins in the body), which can be toxic.

heap of abstract vitamins

Several other diets have been recommended over the years as a way of alleviating symptoms of ADHD. Harvard Health Publications covers a study that examined the impact of artificial colorings and additives on children diagnosed with this disorder. The results were inconclusive overall, but revealed that removing coloring and additives from the diet can be 1/3 to 1/2 as effective as treatment with Ritalin. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry also found that an estimated 8% of children with ADHD have symptoms related to food coloring.

The Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics examined the elimination diet, and found that cutting out certain foods may only influence certain dimensions of ADHD. While some participants of the study claimed a significant decrease in symptoms, many others were only moderately effected by the elimination process. In conjunction with this study, the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published another study, which examined the effects of sugar and aspartame on children with ADHD.

Results showed that there was a definite worsening of symptoms after sugar consumption, but there was no evidence that aspartame had similar negative effects. Regardless of effects, the elimination diet, and additive-free diets are complicated, impractical and often disruptive to the family.

adhd boy
(Photo: Huffington Post)

While there is no official cure to be found through dieting, eating a "healthy diet" versus a "western diet" has been shown to positively impact those with ADHD.  According to Harvard Health Publications, it is important to incorporate a variety of fruits and vegetables into your child's diet, as well as whole grains, healthy fats, and proteins.

It is also crucial that your child remain physically active, as science has shown that this too, can help with symptoms. It is also necessary to avoid foods that contain saturated and trans fats, rapidly-digested carbs, and fast food, as they contain components that could increase the severity of symptoms.

For more information on ADHD and diets, check out these helpful sources:

Official Journal of the American Academy of PediatricsHarvard Health PublicationsJournal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Journal of Attention Disorders