Diet and ADHD: Why Food Matters

What children eat — and don’t eat — is an enormous part of the ADHD equation. Here’s a quick look at what parents should know.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most controversial health conditions of our day, one that’s long on theories and unanswered questions and short on treatments. Although it’s arguably the most prevalent behavioral condition diagnosed in children, ADHD is really more a grab bag of behaviors than a single, well-defined disease. Affecting three times as many boys as girls, ADHD can — but doesn’t always — include hyperactivity, distractibility, tantrums, anxiety, blue moods, impulsive behavior, and learning disabilities. It’s believed to be related to a host of contributing factors, including asthma, genetic predisposition, secondhand smoke exposure, early exposure to television, and not being breastfed, although its “cause” remains murky.

That said, what is becoming clear is that what children eat — and don’t eat — is an enormous part of the ADHD equation.

Much of the research points to a likely connection between ADHD behavior and food sensitivities/allergies, along with deficiencies of key nutrients critical for brain development and function.

Most researchers are reluctant to say definitively that a child’s diet causes ADHD or that eliminating food allergy triggers or correcting nutritional imbalances might cure it. Even so, consider that the first impulse is to medicate unruly kids with stimulant drugs like methylphenidate (Ritalin). Despite the drug’s ability to tame bad behavior in 7 out of 10 kids with ADHD, there are concerns that in relying on it, we’re making a devil’s bargain. Ritalin’s chemical composition is similar to cocaine’s, one reason it’s become the recreational street drug of choice for many teens. And it comes with a laundry list of possible side effects, including appetite loss, stunted growth, sleep disruption, tics, and heart problems. Given all the red flags, tinkering with a child’s diet may be the safer place to start.

The Bottom Line?
Make sure your child’s diet emphasizes protein and complex carbohydrates.

This is perhaps the most important change you can make to your child’s diet. Shifting it away from foods rich in refined sugar and flours and instead filling Junior’s plate with more protein and high-fiber complex carbohydrates may eliminate some ADHD symptoms simply by stabilizing blood sugar levels. While the brain relies on blood sugar as its main energy source, too much can actually disrupt proper brain function.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest