ADHD: It’s The Food, Stupid | Civil Eats

ADHD: It’s The Food, Stupid

Over five million children ages four to 17 have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the United States and close to 3 million of those children take medication for their symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But a new study reported in The Lancet last month found that with a restricted diet alone, many children experienced a significant reduction in symptoms. The study’s lead author, Dr. Lidy Pelsser of the ADHD Research Centre in the Netherlands, said in an interview with NPR, “The teachers thought it was so strange that the diet would change the behavior of the child as thoroughly as they saw it. It was a miracle, the teachers said.”

Dr. Pessler’s study is the first to conclusively say that diet is implicated in ADHD. In the NPR interview, Dr. Pessler did not mince words, “Food is the main cause of ADHD,” she said adding, “After the diet, they were just normal children with normal behavior. They were no longer more easily distracted, they were no more forgetful, there were no more temper-tantrums.” The study found that in 64 percent of children with ADHD, the symptoms were caused by food. “It’s a hypersensitivity reaction to food,” Pessler said.

This is good news for parents and children who would like to avoid many of the adverse side effects associated with common stimulant drugs like Ritalin used to treat ADHD—and bad news for the pharmaceutical industry. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that common side effects from the drugs are sleeplessness (for which a doctor might also prescribe sleeping pills) headaches and stomachaches, decreased appetite, and a long list of much more frightening (yet rarer) side effects, including feeling helpless, hopeless, or worthless, and new or worsening depression. But Pessler’s study indicates that up to two-thirds or two of the three million children currently medicated for ADHD may not need medication at all. “With all children, we should start with diet research,” Pessler said.

There are also questions about the long-term effects of stimulant drugs and growth in children. After three years on Ritalin, children were about an inch shorter and 4.4 pounds lighter than their peers, according to a major study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2007. A 2010 study in the Journal of Pediatrics disputed these findings, but all the study’s authors had relationships with drug companies, some of which make stimulants. According to Reuters, “The lead author, Harvard University’s Dr. Joseph Biederman, was once called out by Iowa Senator Charles E. Grassley for the consulting fees he has received from such drug makers.”

This is just one example of how the powerful billion-dollar drug industry designs and interprets studies to suit their interests. Since the 1970s, researchers not tied to drug companies have been drawing connections between foods, food additives, and the symptoms associated with ADHD but many have been dismissed or overlooked by conventional medicine. One of the earliest researchers in this field was Dr. Benjamin Feingold who created a specific diet to address behavioral and developmental problems in children. The Feingold diet, as it is now called, recommends removing all food additives, dyes, and preservatives commonly found in the majority of industrial foods.

There are a multitude of credible scientific studies to indicate that diet plays a large role in the development of ADHD. One study found that the depletion of zinc and copper in children was more prevalent in children with ADHD. Another study found that one particular dye acts as a “central excitatory agent able to induce hyperkinetic behavior.” And yet another study suggests that the combination of various common food additives appears to have a neurotoxic effect—pointing to the important fact that while low levels of individual food additives may be regarded as safe for human consumption, we must also consider the combined effects of the vast array of food additives that are now prevalent in our food supply.

In Pessler’s study the children were placed on a restricted diet consisting of water, rice, turkey, lamb, lettuce, carrots, pears and other hypoallergenic foods—in other words, real, whole foods. This means that by default the diet contained very few, if any, food additives.

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As I see it, there are two factors at work in this study: One being the allergic reaction to the actual foods themselves and the second being a possible reaction to food additives, or combinations of food additives, found in industrial foods. Both certainly could be at play in the results of this study, although the discussion of Dr. Pessler’s study thus far hasn’t addressed the latter issue.

One theme in the discussion of the story has been skepticism from mainstream media—the recent Los Angeles Times article (the only major daily newspaper to cover the study) was very skeptical, if not dismissive. The author writes, “Previous studies have found similar effects, but, like this one, they all had fundamental problems that made it easy for doctors to dismiss them.” NPR interviewer, Guy Raz asked a question invoking this tone as well, “Now, you’re not saying that some children with ADHD should not be given medication, right?” Pessler does say that there are some children and adults who might benefit from pharmaceuticals but her research indicates that far too many are being medicated unnecessarily—and this is the crux of the story.

The Los Angeles Times article ends on this note: “‘To be sure, the prospect of treating ADHD with diet instead of drugs would appeal to many parents,’ Dr. Jaswinder Ghuman, a child psychiatrist who treats ADHD says. ‘But parents who want to give it a try should be sure to consult their child’s physician first, she warned: ‘It’s not that simple to do appropriately.’”

Call me old-fashioned, but changing your child’s diet seems a lot “simpler” than altering his or her brain chemistry with a daily dose of pharmaceuticals. It does takes patience, trial and error, and commitment to complete an elimination diet—taking a pill to target symptoms certainly requires less effort on the part of the doctors, family and child. While no one is denying that ADHD is a complicated web of symptoms with potentially many contributing factors, why not start by examining the most basic and fundamental cornerstone of our health—the foods (and non-foods) we put into our bodies.

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Kristin Wartman is a journalist who writes about food, health, politics, and culture. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Huffington Post and many others. Kristin's first book, Formerly Known as Food—a critical look at how the industrial food system is changing our minds, bodies, and culture—is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press. Read more >

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  1. Evelyn Wenzel
    "To be sure, the prospect of treating ADHD with diet instead of drugs would appeal to many parents,’ Dr. Jaswinder Ghuman, a child psychiatrist who treats ADHD says. ‘But parents who want to give it a try should be sure to consult their child’s physician first, she warned: ‘It’s not that simple to do appropriately.’”

    I love how we never need a dr.s permission or watch or care when eating a diet of junk food. Just come in monthly for your prescription refill...makes complete sense
  2. Gladys Capraru
    I think that most people, although in an intellectual leve know, don't really understand that we are made and renewed by the food we eat, and as a consequence, the changes that we make in our diet will always bring either positive or negative effects. We need more articles like this in which the public is educated about it.

    Thanks for spreding knowledge! Hopefully after reading this one parent will decide to help their child through proper nutrition instead of comdemning him/her to be permanent dependant on drugs through all their life, as any dependency shackles our true freedom, and that is absolutely something you don't want to do to any child.
  3. I agree with the idea of feeding children with diorders wholesome diet. My daughter nearly became a victim of prescriptions but I did not even want to discuss it with anyone instead I became my child's cook-fed her wholesome sodas, fast food, processed ect -even made her juice at home. Today twelve years later she is fine all... are disorders gone. "Food is the best medicine"
  4. Cindy
    My son only confirms this doctors findings. We are on year 2, and his original diagnosis of ADHD was re-diagnosed as ADD at about 9 months into the diet. On year 2, he has more short-term memory function (long term was never a problem), he is able to focus for longer periods of time, his grades have improved, his behaviors are "normal" according to his teachers, and his self-esteem is at 100% now. All without any ADD prescriptions. He is taking some natural supplements to help neurological functions.

    For my son, he had allergies to gluten, dairy, cane sugar, and we eliminated all additives. We eat only whole foods, processed as little as possible. We also eat seasonal as much as humanly possible.

    Additionally, he is no longer the picky child he used to be, and has learned that he has a lot more food choices to be excited about. He gets a great deal of the vitamins from foods instead of supplements.

    I don't have to worry about the side-effects from scary drugs anymore! I love it.
  5. Barb
    It was certainly our experience with our youngest son - that his behaviour changed depending on foods he had eaten. It was very helpful to us to keep a note of what he was eating and get feedback from the teacher as to how his day had gone. We were surprised to learn that food dye is used to make fruit more attractive - and we learned about which states spray fruit and which states don't. We also learned about preservatives used in packaging that had an effect on our son.
    It was much more work for us, and we did have to be aware of what our family was eating. It was, however, worth the work.
  6. Eating healthy does not make corporations wealthy. Therefore, your economically (compromised?)pressured doctor will 1st recommend a prescription that aids in his, his employer's and the drug industry that spends 3x the $ on marketing and advertising than its fortune 500 counterparts. Think for yourself and use your own intuition to do what is best for your child or yourself. Experiment with healthy foods, and if it doesn't "cure" the ADHD, there is no downside - you will at least be healthier.
  7. Very well written article. Thank you for dissecting and clearly stating the results of the study and why media is hesitant.
  8. “The teachers thought it was so strange that the diet would change the behavior of the child as thoroughly as they saw it. It was a miracle, the teachers said.”

    There is nothing 'miraculous' about food and I find it amusing that people are so uneducated about healthy eating that they think this way. To me it's no miracle that removing processed food, additives, chemicals and preservatives, and eating a whole foods diet will make a person feel better - it's just common sense! Obviously not to everyone, though. I'm just glad you're sharing articles like this so more people can be exposed to the idea of "Food as Medicine."

    It's so sad that we live in a world where drugs and overmedication are more accepted than pure nutrition. Sure it makes sense because everything is driven by money, it's just such a depressing thought. I totally agree with what Matthew said.

    Thanks again for sharing this article, I'll definitely be passing it on.
  9. I too feel that the ADHD is largely contributed to the diet most kids today are eating. Today kids are loading up on caffeine and high sugar content foods.
  10. Robert
    It's no surprise and I applaud Dr. Lidy Pelsser for doing this study. Much like vaccines (and how multiple ones interact with one another), now food additive combination's need to be looked at; neither study will ever be completed.

    However, I also feel badly for Dr. Pelsser, she has published a study that could impact pharmaceutical company profits, look for her to be vilified in some form or fashion like Dr. Wakefield.
  11. Rachel Cummins
    Great article, bad name.

    Thanks for the information.

  12. This is a great post! Thanks so much for putting it out there. I am not surprised that main stream media turned up their noses at these findings. This isn't good news for the pharmaceutical companies. In addition to a healthful diet, eliminating toxic cleaning & laundry chemicals can also help. I also believe in certain nutritional supplements that can help such as lecithin for concentration, B-Complex which helps with anxiety and irritability, and calcium/magnesium which reduces stress and helps to relax muscles and nerves. Thanks again for this great information.
  13. remove the additives
    The main reason parents are told to consult a doctor is because the restricted diet in the study is not nutritionally complete and could lead to health problems if followed long-term.

    A second reason is because most parents need to be educated on how to correctly do an elimination diet and food challenge tests. If you do it incorrectly you are likely to accidentally leave things in your child's diet that cause problems, and ban things that are safe.

    The restricted diet consists of water, plain turkey or lamb meat, plain rice, plain pears, a few restricted vegetables (carrots, lettuce), and a daily allocation of rice "milk" artificially fortified to make up for the diet's mineral deficiencies.

    The children are permitted a small serving of some foods like potatoes or certain fruits once or twice a week.

    The study lasted nine weeks, five of which were spent on the strictest form of the diet. The authors acknowledge that following the restricted diet long-term could cause health problems.

    Almost 40% of the initial study children dropped out because they got no benefit from the diet or found it adversely restrictive.

    The Los Angeles Times reported,

    "In a commentary that accompanied the Lancet study, [Dr. Jasminder Kaur] Ghuman wrote that, while the diet's benefits were impressive, following it for more than five weeks could have detrimental health consequences. [Study lead author Dr. Lidy] Pelsser is the first to admit that no one can follow such a severe diet for very long. The children in her study have been gradually adding foods back to their diet."
  14. I've read about this a couple of times over the past year and heard anecdotes about it in practice - essentially removing processed carbohydrates demonstrated a reduction in ADHD behaviour. Food is a powerful agent in affecting body chemistry - even obesity is not a simple correlation between calories in and calories burned - the type of food we eat induces chemical instructions to store or burn fat, so why not this and perhaps other conditions? It will not be tolerated by big Pharma though.
  15. paula bard
    Thanks for helping to get this information out! My kids were raised on organic foods and minimal chemicals (dyes, preservatives, processed foods) but it was getting gluten out of their diet that really made the largest changes in health, personality, concentration and organizational abilities. For our family, gluten had the largest effect. It is also the hardest to avoid!
  16. Einar C. Christiansen
    Two words: Oversimplification and misdiagnosis.

    I'm pretty sure a large number of the kids in this study never were ADHD at all. This sort of search for easy answers almost always ends up leading nowhere.
  17. Lucy
    It's not always the food. My son was born to our wholefood,organic vegetarian household in 1984,wasbreastfed, and ateand grew healthily.He demonstrated attention deficit froman early age,and consistent healthy living neither improved the situation, nor did occasional birthday parties (and friends whose parents served every food colouring and sugary food ever) seem to make him any worse. Neither did he have medication.Now, at 26, he manages his own life with good food, having been through every fad and nutritional experimentation possible ( he is also a chef) and has noticed that the only food to have noticably detrimental effect on his condition - is too many apples!
  18. Jessica
    THANK GOD someone is talking about this! I have been saying this for years and people have thought I was crazy!!!!

    I am sick of parents and doctors being glorified drug dealers when something as simple as feeding the child REAL, WHOLE food will work just as well. The diet will also make the child healthier in the long run.

    If this article appeals to you, read a book called Sugar Blues by William Dufty. I think it is out-of-print, but available used from various places on the Internet (I checked). It's very eye-opening.
  19. "As I see it, there are two factors at work in this study: One being the allergic reaction to the actual foods themselves"

    Actually, it doesn't require a full-blown allergic reaction to produce the effects. Below the level of a full-blown allergy, you can have an INFLAMMATORY reaction. Some of the proteins in even a "natural" food such as the gluten in whole wheat can leak through holes in the gut incompletely digested, get attacked by histamines as in an allergic reaction, and turn the gluten into gluteomorphin (similar to morphine) and cause inattentiveness. As it happens, gluten is a protein that food manufacturers particularly like to extract, refine, and add to very many foods that it would normally have nothing to do with. When added to breakfast cereal they call it "barley malt flavoring." In other foods it's called "modified food starch."

    In case you're wondering how I know all this, I used to be autistic and have all the witness/photographic evidence to prove it that any medical researcher could want. Nobody cares.
    • Sage
      The author isn't saying ADHD is caused by a food sensitivity, they're saying that ADHD is often confused with a food sensitivity. ADHD is a mutational trait dating back 40000 years that has to do with a mutated allele on section B of the DRD4 gene on chromosome 11. DRD4 is DNA for Dopamine Receptor #4, which doesn't function properly because of ADHD.

      "Used to be autistic?"
      #1 There is no "used to be"; the genes don't work like that
      #2 ADHD and autism are not the same thing

      for one thing:
      ADHD doesn't affect IQ
      Autism does
  20. Hi Kristin, I believe that food is the cause and cure of many diseases. Congratulations for the brilliant article, that I shared with other brazilian's mothers at my little gourmet's blog.
  21. Sage
    No, you got this all wrong. ADHD isn't a food sensitivity, it's confused with a food sensitivity that has nothing to do with the legit genetic DRD4 mutation ADHD
    This article would be more appropriately called "It's not ADHD, it the food, stupid!"
    I'm sure this is what you were getting at but as you can see all of the rest of the stupid people in the comments section don't understand that.
    Kind of a slap in the face to the real ADHDers.
    • Nonsense. ADHD is a profound, crippling horror story that doesn't occur as a response to food.

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