Good news for parents whose child has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a few dietary changes might help to reduce their symptoms, according to a recent study from the ADHD Research Centre in the Netherlands. A restricted elimination diet can work, researchers say, because they believe ADHD symptoms in some children might be affected by eating specific foods.
Researchers recruited 100 children from Belgium and the Netherlands between the ages of 4 and 8 who had been diagnosed with ADHD and divided them into two groups. One group was placed on the restrictive elimination diet, and parents of the rest of the kids were simply told to feed their children a healthy diet.
The “few foods diet,” included mainly rice, white meat such as turkey, water, and some fruits and vegetables that are generally considered hypoallergenic, like pears and carrots. Foods such as wheat, tomatoes, oranges, eggs, and dairy products were eliminated, as they are often linked with allergies or food intolerances.
After five weeks, children who reacted well to the restricted diet entered a second phase of the study where different foods were slowly introduced to see if the children’s symptoms worsened. Amazingly, 64 percent of the children on the restricted diet in the first phase exhibited fewer ADHD symptoms than kids who didn’t eat the restricted diet. When elimination foods were reintroduced, the symptoms returned.
The news may come as a relief for parents who would like to avoid the many possible side effects associated with common stimulant drugs used to treat ADHD—like sleeplessness, headaches, decreased appetite, and even depression. The study indicates that up to two-thirds—or 2 of the 3 million children currently medicated for ADHD—may not need medication at all, says its lead author, Lidy Pelsser, PhD, of the ADHD Centre in the Netherlands. “If a child is diagnosed ADHD, we should say, ‘OK, we have got those symptoms, now let’s start looking for a cause,’” Pelsser said in an interview with National Public Radio. “With all children, we should start with diet research.”
However, the study has been met with some criticism: Some say a period of five weeks isn’t long enough to determine whether or not the elimination diet reduces symptoms long-term. Conversely, following such a strict diet for more than five weeks could lead to bigger health problems, like malnutrition. Some experts are also skeptical of how realistic it would be for parents to enforce such a regimented diet, especially on older children.
Still, parents who are reluctant to put their kids on medication might find the prospect of an elimination diet appealing. If you think dietary changes might enable your child to go off her ADHD meds, consider keeping a diary tracking her daily food intake and behavior to see if you notice any particular patterns, like irritability after drinking milk. Then, talk with your child’s doctor about whether gradually eliminating certain foods might work for your family.