With nearly 1 in 10 US children now being diagnosed with ADHD, doctors and scientists have been scrambling to find alternatives to medication. Study after study has looked for non-medical treatments for ADHD. Many parents swear by elimination diets – cutting out everything from sugar, to dairy, to preservatives. A recent review paper in the journal Pediatrics explores the connection between diet and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder – and concludes that changes in diet alone aren’t usually enough to treat the condition.
What’s notable here is that the scientific community isn’t necessarily dismissing diet as a contributing factor to ADHD. One of the authors of the paper states that elimination diets can help in “a small percentage of patients.” And Dr. Benjamin Prince, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, recently explained to NPR how he uses diet and medication as part of a complementary treatment.
Among his suggestions? Kids with ADHD need a diet rich in protein to keep them grounded – starting with breakfast. Between medication that often affects their appetites, and their high level of energy, they can end up hungry, cranky and defiant. The solution? Pack a lunch high in protein and complex carbohydrates that can help keep them going throughout the day.
Prince also notes that some studies have shown a link between ADHD and low levels of long-chain, polyunsaturated fatty acids, also called omega-3s – a type of nutrients found naturally in fish oil. Research on the benefits of omega-3s in treating ADHD has been mixed, but given that they’re good for cardiac health in general, Prince recommends adding more fish or fish oil supplements to kid’s diets.
Australian research has even shown that folk wisdom regarding sugary snacks exacerbating ADHD have some truth to them. The study from the University of Western Australia also found that eating lots of processed foods, red meat and high-fat dairy correlated with higher levels of ADHD. The study concluded that cutting back on (but not necessarily eliminating) those foods might help children focus better and remain calm in class.
Clearly, more research needs to be done on the topic, but current evidence suggests that just “eating right” may not be enough to help most children with ADHD. But that doesn’t mean that healthy eating doesn’t help.
Photo by: Bruce Tuten