New ADHD Report Clarifies Diet Matters Less Than Parents Think

At first, it looked as though some new science was telling us that a good diet was all a kid needed to improve attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, a new review is out that serves a slice of humble pie all around; to the parents who believe in the magic of the diet solution as well as the skeptics who’ve been scoffing all along.

The new report summarizes decades of research on the many approaches parents have tried (with or without medical approval). It more or less supports the idea that a healthy diet helps kids with ADHD, but isn’t particularly encouraging for parents that pull out all the stops and put their kids on strict and complex diet regimens, hoping against hope to remove the need for medication or (gasp) therapy.

The review was published in Pediatrics from researchers at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Here’s a summary:

  • Most studies show no link with sugar, but can’t rule out that some very sensitive kids are affected. Still, so many parents are convinced that sugar is a trigger that “no controlled study or physician counsel is likely to change this perception,” now, the authors write. (In one small study conducted two decades ago, mothers who thought their kids drank a sugary beverage reported surges in hyperactivity not seen by moms correctly told the drinks contained artificial sweetener).
  • Diets that eliminate food dyes and preservatives might help “an occasional child,” but are not the answer for most. (This is part of the Feingold diet, which has been around since the 1970s).
  • Elimination diets that help identify food allergies are “complex, time-consuming, and sometimes too burdensome,” but often worth trying for “selected patients with diligent parents.”
  • Supplements of omega-3 fatty acids are unproven but show promise. (Benefits appear “small but significant,” other researchers reported recently. Translation: They help, but not as much as stimulant drugs do.)
  • A simple, healthy diet, full of fish, vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy, shows the most promise. The authors point to an Australian study showing lower rates of ADHD among teens who ate that sort of diet than among those who ate a junky “Western” diet full of fast and processed foods, red meat and soft drinks.

The original report can’t say whether or not a bad diet actually causes ADHD, and theorized that it may just be that kids with ADHD desire crap food. So would changing those habits improve symptoms? The new report can’t quite say either. Standard medical intervention is still concluded to be the very best treatment for sufferers of ADHD (read: parents), though it is admitted that a healthy diet sure doesn’t hurt.

Do you have a child with ADHD? Do you suffer from it yourself?