Healthy Diet May Ease ADHD Symptoms: Study
January 10, 2012

Healthy Diet May Ease ADHD Symptoms: Study

A new study suggests there may be a link between consuming sodas, ice cream, processed meats and high-fat dairy foods and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.

Having kids steer clear of these unhealthy foods may make a difference, the researchers said.

Furthermore, at least some research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may help improve symptoms.

The researchers from Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago reviewed previous studies on diets and supplements among children with ADHD.

These diets included sugar restriction, avoiding foods containing additives and preservatives, avoiding foods most often implicated in food allergies, and supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids.

The review found little evidence that sugar or artificial sweeteners affect a child´s behavior, nor did the so-called Feingold diet, which includes avoiding food that contains synthetic food dyes and preservatives.

However, some studies have indicated that children with ADHD benefit from an elimination, or hypoallergenic, diet, which typically means avoiding cow's milk, cheese, wheat cereal, eggs, chocolate, nuts and citrus foods.

These foods can be hard on the child and on the family, said study author Dr. J. Gordon Millichap, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University Medical School and neurologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

However, there have been mixed results of studies on hypoallergenic diets, he said.

"We find the hypoallergenic diet might be effective, but difficult for families to manage them," Millichap told USA Today.

One Australian study suggested that children who consumed a typical "Western-style" diet high in fat, salt and refined sugars had a greater risk of ADHD than those who consumed a healthy diet that rich in fish, vegetables, fruit and whole grains.

A separate study by researchers in Britain found that kids who were excessively clumsy, some of which also had ADHD, were not helped in their clumsiness by omega-3 supplements, but did show improvements in their attention.

Other studies have shown that many children with ADHD had unusually low levels of iron in the blood.   One Israeli study found that the parents of kids given iron supplements reported less ADHD symptoms in their children, although teachers observed no such effect.

Such mixed results demonstrate the challenge with research that examines dietary interventions for ADHD, said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York.

The placebo effect can be powerful, he said.

Indeed, much of the research on diets compares dietary changes to no treatment, while there's little research that compares a diet to medications such as Ritalin or Adderall, which have years of research demonstrating their effectiveness in kids with ADHD, Adesman said.

"For better or worse, medications are the single most effective treatment available for ADHD," Adesman told USA Today.

"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 some 5 percent to 8 percent of school-aged children. Symptoms can include inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity beyond what is typically seen in children.  Many parents are reluctant to medicate their young children, triggering a growing interest in alternative treatments.

"We do find parents are becoming more interested in the possibility of using diets rather than, or as a complement to, medication," Dr. Millichap said.

Behavior therapy is usually the first line of treatment for children with ADHD.  The therapy uses positive reinforcement to help kids learn to manage impulsivity.

But Millichap says parents who wish to try dietary interventions should be supported.

"Diets can be used in the treatment of ADHD, but it's usually not a first choice with most parents," he said.

"But some parents prefer it and don't like medications at all. That's one of the reasons for considering the diets. Another is if there are side effects or adverse effects from the medications. Then one might turn to dietary treatments."

However, Adesman cautioned that research in the area of dietary treatments for ADHD is still in an early stage.

"Families are welcome to explore and pursue alternative approaches, but they need to recognize that oftentimes there is limited research to support or justify their use and the benefits will likely be less substantial than conventional treatment."

The current review is published in the February issue of Pediatrics.


On the Net: