A Western Diet High in Sugars and Fat Could Contribute to ADHD

There doesn't seem to be one particular kind of diet that works best for treating the symptoms of ADHD, but unhealthy food could be a culprit.


While there doesn't seem to be any one particular diet that works to treat the symptoms of ADHD in children, a review of the research on various dietary regimens suggests that plain old healthy eating may work the best.

Dr. J. Gordon Millichap, a neurologist, and Michelle M. Yee, a nurse-practitioner, both researchers at Children's Memorial Hospital and Northwestern University in Chicago, reviewed 70 studies dating back to 1976 on the use of diet and dietary supplements for the treatment of ADHD.

The Feingold Diet, popular in the 1970s, advocated the avoidance of foods like lunch meats, hot dogs, soda, apples, grapes, anything with orange or red food coloring, and certain food preservatives. Symptom relief was claimed in over half of hyperactive children treated with the diet; however, subsequent controlled studies did not show the diet to be effective. In their review, the authors stated, "An occasional child might react adversely to dyes and preservatives in food and might benefit from their elimination," and suggested that parents who wish to try this approach need patience, perseverance, and frequent evaluation by a supportive physician and dietitian.

Sugar has long been blamed for the hyperactive behavior of children, and artificial sweeteners have been included in the mix as well. Parents of children with ADHD frequently state that their child's behavior worsens after the ingestion of sugar or diet soda. While it is entirely possible that some children may be sensitive to these ingredients, most studies showed no link with sugar or aspartame and ADHD. The researchers point out, however, that the perception is so universally accepted in the opinions of parents of children with ADHD that no study or physician is likely to ever change that perception.

Supplements of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid have also been suggested as a treatment for ADHD. Millichap and Yee have used them in their work with ADHD at Children's Memorial Hospital, and described occasional reports of improvement in grades and ADHD symptoms when used as initial or add-on therapy. In the report, however, they pointed out that there is no proof of their effectiveness though there seems to be a link between low levels of fatty acids and ADHD.

Past studies have suggested a reduction in ADHD symptoms when an elimination or "hypoallergenic" diet is followed. This type of diet eliminates common allergy-inducing foods like nuts, cow's milk, cheese, wheat cereal, and chocolate and replaces them with hypoallergenic foods such as lamb, carrots, pears, tapioca, and potatoes. While the diet may be effective for some kids, there are mixed opinions on its efficacy, and diagnosing a food sensitivity is "complex, time-consuming, and burdensome for patient, family, and physician."

A recent Australian study looked at the relationship between dietary patterns and ADHD. Kids who ate a Western diet, one that is high in total fat, saturated fat, refined sugars, and sodium, and deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and folate, were significantly more likely to have ADHD than those who ate a healthy diet, one that is rich in fish, vegetables, fruit, legumes, and whole-grain foods. The study authors concluded that, "a modification of the child's dietary pattern may offer an alternative method of treatment to ADHD and less reliance on medications."

The review article was published in Pediatrics.

Image: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock.

This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Beth Fontenot is a registered dietitian and a licensed dietitian/nutritionist. She serves on the Louisiana Board of Examiners in Dietetics and Nutrition and writes for TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com.

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