ADHD and Diet in Children

by Kathryn Addington

The diagnosis of ADD and ADHD in children has become increasingly popular since the 1970's. Opinions on this condition vary quite a bit. There are those that believe the diagnosis is outrageous and children just need more skilled parenting or discipline. Then there are those who cannot imagine their family functioning without Ritalin, a popular stimulant used for children diagnosed with ADHD. Whatever the opinion, there do seem to be many children in America today struggling with hyperactivity and an inability to focus. Another trend that seems to be spreading quickly throughout the country, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, is a willingness to try holistic or alternative ways to deal with illness, mental or physical. This article will explore exactly what ADHD is and the link between children with ADHD and their diet. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, or DSM-IV, sets the standard for diagnostic criteria for mental disorders. It is published by the American Psychiatric Association (1994). ADHD is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The DSM-IV states that individuals with ADHD "display several signs of inattention, hyperactivity and/or signs of impulsivity." The DSM-IV describes some of the behaviors that may demonstrate patterns of these three signs:

  • "becoming easily distracted by irrelevant sights and sounds"
  • "rarely following instructions carefully and completely"
  • "feeling restless, often fidgeting with hands or feet, or squirming"
  • "having difficulty waiting in a line or for a turn"
The cause of ADHD is still unknown. ADHD does have a familial link. It is yet to be determined whether this is genetic or environmental; it is likely to be both. This diagnosis is typically made by a pediatrician or child psychiatrist. There is no "cure" for ADHD. However, it is often treated with stimulants, such as Ritalin, Concerta or Adderall. Many families are opting for an alternative to these stimulants. Parents are trying different techniques, such as specialized reward systems, Individual Education Plans (IEP's) in school and of course, changes to their children's diets, in hopes that they can avoid the use of medication.

Dr. Bejamin Feingold was one of the first physicians to actively encourage parents of children with ADHD to adjust their diet to help with behavioral problems. Working as an allergist in California, he developed the "Feingold Diet." This diet or program eliminates artificial coloring, artificial flavoring, aspartame and artificial preservatives BHA, BHT and TBHQ. This was developed to treat ADHD when Dr. Feigold discovered that as his patients with hives, asthma and other allergic reactions were put on this restrictive diet, their behavioral problems also decreased. Dr. Feingold's findings were by parent's report only, not scientific researchers. To find out more about the Feingold Program, visit the website:

As Dr. Feingold's program popularized, it sparked the beginning of many, many studies researching the possible link between children's hyperactivity and their diet. The results of these studies vary drastically. Some of the studies look at a general population of children, putting some on a restricted diet and others eating an average diet without restriction. Most studies however, look at children with the diagnosis of ADHD and their diets. Most studies rely on reports from the subject's parents, which is far from objective. In many cases, there was even a drastic difference between the report given by the subject's mother and the subject's father, which shows that the data gathered is quite subjective. The findings of these studies were variable and there seemed to be a lack of consistent, solid information overall.

One alternative is to, as discussed above, place children with ADHD on a restrictive diet to help control behavior and encourage focus. Another theory discussed in an article found at, is the idea that children with ADHD may be lacking certain vitamins, minerals or have problems with glucose metabolism. This article, titled Attention Deficit Disorder Can Respond to a Diet Change, sites a study done which compared children "treated with Ritalin and children treated with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, amino acids, essential fatty acids, phospholipids and probiotics. Both groups showed significant and essentially identical improvement." Later in the article, there is a section discussing the possibility that glucose metabolism may have a link to hyperactivity. Catecholamine is a hormone released from the adrenal gland that regulates insulin secretion, making sure blood sugar does not get too low. Insulin is released from the pancreas, typically after a meal, to keep blood sugar from getting too high. However, a certain amount of blood sugar is necessary for brain activity and energy, so catecholamine ensures that levels are adequate. This article states that "ADHD children release only about half the amount of these hormones as normal children," which suggests that perhaps children are hyperactive to "force their adrenal glands to release more catecholamines."

When dealing with a child diagnosed with ADHD, there is no one, right way to treat them. This diagnosis, like most mental health diagnoses, is helpful because it categorizes behavior. This serves to better assist caregivers and providers in knowing what to do and how to help an individual. Every child is unique, no matter how similar their behavior is to another child. What may work for one child may not work for another. This is what makes mental or behavioral health difficult to study. It does seem to be clear that diet does not cause ADHD in children. At best, a restricted diet or the addition of certain nutrients may contribute to a decrease in hyperactivity and an increase in focus for some children.

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