ADHD, anxiety, and depression

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.


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 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 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!

By DrStuppy

I am a pediatrician and mother of two teens. I have a passion for sharing health related information.

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