Special Diets for ADHD

Most of us have heard of the claims of cures for all sorts of ills, including behavioral problems (especially ADHD and autism) with simple dietary changes (with and without supplements). This post covers some diets for ADHD that have been recommended as treatments. Supplements will be covered tomorrow.

Why talk about diets for ADHD?

ADHD elimination diet, vitaminsFears of side effects from long-term medication or a history of medication failures cause families to look for alternative treatment options for child behavior issues. Diet modification and restriction is intriguing for parents since it fits into the ideal of a healthy lifestyle without added medicines and their potential side effects. However, there is a lot of controversy as to whether these restrictions help except in a small subset of children who have true allergy to the substance.

In general if a simple solution through diet was found, everyone would be doing it.

That just isn’t happening.

I do think that we all benefit from eating real foods — the ones that look like they did when they were grown, not processed and packaged. Fruits, vegetables, protein sources, whole grains, and complex carbohydrates should be the basis for everyone’s diet. It’s just good nutrition. But the direct effect of special diets on learning, behavior, and conditions such as ADHD is limited.

Natural does not equal safe.

When my kids were young and picky eaters I never would have considered stimulating their appetite with organically grown marijuana. While it is all natural (even organic!) and it might increase their appetites, it would have risks, right? In this case I don’t think the risks would outweigh the benefits. But so often parents think that if it’s natural, it’s healthier than something made by man.

Drugs have been tested. They have risks too, but those risks are a known. Some natural therapies have not been as thoroughly tested and they are not regulated, so the label might not correctly identify the contents. For this reason, I think that healthy foods are a great option for everyone, but I hesitate to recommend a lot of supplements, especially by brand.

Elimination diets

Over the years there have been many foods or additives that have been blamed for causing learning and behavioral problems. Some of the proposed problematic foods:

  • food dyes
  • refined sugars
  • gluten
  • salicylate and additives
  • dairy products
  • wheat
  • corn
  • yeast
  • soy
  • citrus
  • eggs
  • chocolate
  • nuts

I’m sure the list goes on, but I’ve got to move on. I’ll discuss some of the specific elimination diets and what evidence about each says.

Food additives

Food additives have been blamed for learning and behavior problems for many years. In 1975, Dr. Ben Feingold hypothesized that food additives (artificial flavors and colors, and naturally occurring salicylates) were associated with learning disabilities and hyperactive behavior in some children.

Since then many case reports of similar claims have continued to surface, but those do not have the same weight as a double-blinded control study. Most studies done in a scientific manner have failed to show a benefit.

It never hurts to eliminate artificial dyes and additives in your child’s diet. If it helps, continue to avoid them. But if no change is noted, don’t continue to rely on dye avoidance as a treatment plan.

GAPS Diet

Another elimination diet is the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet, designed by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride.

She asserts that a wide variety of health problems  (autism, ADHD, schizophrenia, depression, and more) are from an imbalance of gut microbes. Not only has it not been proven to work, I worry that it restricts healthy foods, such as fruits, and kids will develop other problems on this diet.

I cannot go into details in this space, but for more information visit Science Based Medicine: GAPS diet.

Gluten

Gluten is in the news to be the base of many problems. It seems to be recommended to go gluten free for just about any ailment you can think of.

There are a subset of people who are really sensitive to gluten, and they benefit greatly from a gluten free diet.

But the large majority of people gain no direct benefit from this expensive and restrictive diet. One indirect benefit of the diet previously was that it was nearly impossible to eat pre-packaged and processed foods, which leaves real fruits, vegetables, and other high quality foods. As more people are going gluten free there are more pre-package products made gluten free. I wonder if the benefits people have noticed previously will wane when they eat these foods.

Talk with your doctor before deciding if going gluten free will work for your child.

Sugar

Sugar is often blamed on hyperactivity. By all means, no child needs extra sugar, so cut out what you can.

Well controlled studies did not find a behavioral difference in kids after refined sugars.

Interestingly, parents still perceived a change (despite researchers finding none) in at least one study by Wolraich, Wilson, and White. 1995.

Food allergies

Food allergies are now commonly thought to be related to behavior and learning problems.

In some children with true allergies, foods can affect behavior. However, most children do not have food allergies and avoiding foods does not alter behavior. It can be challenging to determine if there is a food allergy since some of the tests offered are not reliable.

Elimination Diets Final Thoughts

In a small subset of kids food avoidance helps, but in the large majority studies do not support avoidance of foods.

If you think your child benefits from avoiding one or two foods, it probably isn’t a big deal to restrict those foods.

But if you suspect your child is allergic to everything under the sun, you will need to work with your doctor and possibly an allergist and a nutritionist to determine exactly what your child must avoid and how they can get all the nutrients they need to grow and develop normally.

Next up: Supplements for ADHD

Stay tuned for a summary of supplements on ADHD – what’s been proven to work and what hasn’t!

New Juice Guidelines!

The American Academy of Pediatrics is releasing new guidelines for introducing and giving fruit juice today.

Juice that comes from fruit is not the same thing as eating fruit. It’s missing the fiber and even the feeling of fullness that comes from eating foods rather than drinking. Too many kids drink excessive juice, which fills them with empty calories and can contribute to obesity and tooth decay.

How much juice should kids have?

  • Juice is not recommended at all under 1 year of age in the new guidelines.
  • Toddlers from 1-3 years can have up to 4 ounces of 100% juice a day.
  • Children ages 4-6 years can have 4-6 ounces (half to three-quarters of a cup).
  • Children ages 7-18 years can have up to 8 ounces (1 cup) of 100% fruit juice as part of the recommended 2 to 2 ½ cups of fruit servings per day.

General tips and tricks:

  • Offer only 100% juice if you’re giving juice at all. Fruit flavored drinks are not the same thing as juice.
  • Water is always healthy! If your kids want it flavored, cut up fruit and put it in the water. There are many recipes online to get ideas, but kids don’t need anything fancy – just put cut up pieces of their favorite fruit with water in a glass container. Put the container in the refrigerator for 2-4 hours and then pour the infused water into their cup without the fruit (which could pose a choking risk). The infused water will stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
  • Some kids like to start the day with a frozen water bottle. Simply put a 1/2 to 3/4 full water bottle in the freezer overnight – don’t fill it too much because ice expands! Add a bit of water in the morning to help it start melting so it’s drinkable when they want a sip. Adjust the amount of water to freeze as needed depending on how insulated your water bottle is.
  • If your kids demand more than the recommended amount of juice for their age per day, water it down. By mixing water (or sparkling water for a bit of zip) with juice, you decrease the amount of sugar in every serving. You can give 1/2 the recommended daily maximum amount of juice with water twice and still stay within the daily limit.
  • Never let kids drink juice out of a bottle.
  • Never put kids to bed with juice. They should brush teeth before bed and be allowed only water until morning.
  • Offer only pasteurized juice. Unpasteurized juice can cause severe illness.
  • Give kids real fruits and/or vegetables with every meal and snack.
  • Make smoothies! Putting fruits and vegetables in a blender to make a smoothie is a great way to give the full fruit or vegetable instead of juice. Consider adding plain yogurt**, chia, flax, oats, nuts, and other healthy additions to increase the nutritional components of the smoothie! **Flavored yogurts often have added sugars. Look for just milk and cultures in your yogurt.
  • Most juice boxes have more than a day’s supply of juice. Don’t use juice boxes. Offer juice in cups so you can limit to the age appropriate amount.
  • Organic juice is not healthier than other juice. Many parents presume it has less sugar or more nutrients, but it doesn’t.
  • Vegetable juices may have less sugar and fewer calories than in the fruit juice, but are often mixed with fruit juices so you must read ingredients. They also lack the fiber of the actual vegetable, so eating the vegetable (or pureeing veggies into a smoothie) is healthier.
  • Beware of labels that look like juice but aren’t 100% juice. The label might say “juice cocktail,” “juice-flavored beverage” or “juice drink.” Most of these have only small amounts of real juice. Their main ingredients are usually water, small amounts of juice, and some type of sweetener, such as high-fructose corn syrup. Nutritionally, these drinks are similar to most soft drinks: rich in sugar and calories, but low in nutrients. Avoid them.
  • Sports drinks are not healthy substitutes for water. They are sugar-sweetened beverages that contain sodium and other electrolytes. Unless one is doing high intensity exercise for over an hour (such as running a marathon, not playing in a baseball tournament), water and a regular healthy diet provide all the calories and electrolytes we need.
  • Water’s the best drink for our bodies. Buy fun reusable water bottles and challenge your kids to empty them throughout the day. The old rule of “8 cups a day” is outdated, but we should get enough water (from the water content in foods + drinks) to keep our urine pale. We need more water when it’s hot, when we exercise, when we’re sick and when the air’s really dry. Once we feel thirsty we’re already mildly dehydrated, so drink water to prevent dehydration.
juice guidelines
The AAP’s 2017 Juice Guidelines

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