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Role of Diet in ADHD Is Mixed

< Jan. 11, 2012 > -- Does diet make a difference for kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?

Photo of double-decker cheeseburger on plate

It's tough to say, according to an in-depth review of clinical studies on this topic. We still don't have enough information to know one way or the other.

Researchers at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago looked at studies of ADHD diets that restricted sugar, additives and preservatives, or foods that commonly cause allergic reactions. They also looked at studies of diets that added omega-3 fatty acids or other supplements.

The results, to be published in the February issue of the journal Pediatrics, were mixed. Little research supports limiting sugar, artificial sweeteners, dyes, or preservatives to help children with ADHD.

Avoiding foods

Some studies suggest that following an "elimination" diet - one that forgoes cow's milk, cheese, wheat, eggs, chocolate, nuts, and citrus fruit - can help some children. The problem with a hypoallergenic diet, says study author J. Gordon Millichap, M.D., is that kids find it hard to stick with.

"We find the hypoallergenic diet might be effective, but difficult for families to manage them," Dr. Millichap says.

A study by Australian researchers suggested that kids who ate a typical "Western-style" diet, high in fat, salt, and refined sugars, had a higher risk for ADHD than youngsters who ate a diet rich in fish, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains and included lots of fiber, folate, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Too little research

Such mixed study results don't surprise Andrew Adesman, M.D., at Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New Hyde Park, N.Y.

Much of the research on dietary interventions for ADHD compares dietary changes with no treatment, he says. Little research has been done to compare diet with stimulant medications, which have long proved effective for ADHD treatment.

"For better or worse, medications are the single most effective treatment available for ADHD," Dr. Adesman says. "We don't have data to suggest dietary interventions are any more effective than medications, and there is little, if any, data to suggest dietary interventions are AS effective as medications."

ADHD affects 5 to 8 percent of school-aged children. Symptoms include inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity beyond what's normally seen, given a child's age and development.

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Helping a Child with ADHD

Whether your child needs medication or not for ADHD, you can help him or her to cope with the condition by taking these steps:

  • Learn all you can. Educate yourself about the problem and the treatment. Prepare a list of questions for your pediatrician or child psychiatrist. Ask what books might help you understand.

  • Work closely with your child's teacher. Learn about your child's behavior in school. Initial your child's homework to show you've checked it. Ask the teacher about your child's two or three most significant problems.

  • Join a support group. You'll find not only support, but also resources and information.

  • Explore behavioral therapy. Visit with a specialist who treats a lot of ADHD cases. Your pediatrician can suggest a psychiatrist or psychologist.

  • Establish a structured, nurturing home environment. For instance, you should provide a specific time for homework and for checking that it has been done.

  • Set up a daily "report card." As part of it, offer a small reward system to reinforce desired behavior.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

American Academy of Pediatrics - Your Child's Diet: A Cause and a Cure of ADHD?

National Institute of Mental Health - How is ADHD Treated?

Pediatrics - The Diet Factor in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder