Eating for Good Behavior

What’s really causing your kids’ ADHD?

Here’s some food for thought—literally. About 10 percent of kids in the United States have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), leaving many parents to weigh the pros and cons of treatments that often include behavioral therapy, medication, and dietary modifications like coffee before school (really!). But researchers in the Netherlands argue that 64 percent of those diagnosed kids are actually experiencing a hypersensitivity to food, and that the key to treating ADHD—and perhaps even preventing it—is as simple as a change in diet.

The study, published in the medical journal The Lancet, suggests that with a dietary overhaul—which often calls for an elimination of some combination of sugar, dairy, gluten, and preservatives—kids with ADHD could experience a serious reduction in symptoms like excessive fidgeting, outbursts, and the inability to concentrate. A follow-up study published in the journal Pediatrics reported that a diet rich in fish, vegetables, whole-grain foods, fruits, and legumes seemed to improve symptoms for kids with ADHD, while an Australian study found that kids who typically eat a Western-style diet—often including fast food and high-fat dairy—were significantly more likely to have ADHD than kids who ate a more healthful diet.

In the first study, Dr. Lidy Pelsser of the ADHD Research Centre in the Netherlands argues that the way we usually think about—and treat—behavioral disorders like ADHD is wrong. Rather than aiming to address the disorder, we should be aiming to treat the cause. For those of us who practice a preventive or holistic approach to medicine, it makes sense: Of course dietary changes can help reduce symptoms. “We’re not surprised at all,” says Annie B. Kay, MS, RD, an integrative dietitian and Kripalu Lead Nutritionist. “Here in our nutrition group, we see how diet can affect behavior, cognitive, and mental health issues all the time,” she says. “A good percentage of people we see who are experiencing a cognitive or mental health issue are actually experiencing a delayed allergic sensitivity to foods they’re eating. When those foods are eliminated, the symptoms go away.”

But does the idea that a food allergy can actually be the real cause of ADHD-like symptoms suggest that ADHD could actually be prevented? Though she agrees it’s possible, Annie hesitates to recommend using diet as a preventive measure for ADHD, pointing to the hygiene therapy, the idea that a lack of early childhood exposure to certain infections or allergens can suppress immune system development. “Some people believe we’ve actually created an allergy to peanuts by having such strict guidelines about not giving them to children under age two,” she says. “But in places like China, for example, where baby food is peanut-based, allergy rates are much lower. So I would not prophylactically restrict a child’s diet.”

However, if your child has already been diagnosed with ADHD, Annie does recommend seeking the advice of an integrative nutritionist or physician versed in food sensitivities. “Elimination is a challenging thing to do, and requires at least a month commitment,” she says. “But I think any parent who has a child with ADHD would jump at the chance of a non-pharmaceutical intervention. At the very least, it will improve the health of your kids to eat more mindfully. It’s absolutely worth the time and effort.”