Breaking The Diet - ADD Link
Is it the diet? Parents who have children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) have long been told that their kids can't be helped by dietary changes, and only a small percentage of kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are helped by a restrictive diet.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), ADHD affects three to five percent of children, perhaps as many as two million American kids.
"On the average, at least one child in every U.S. classroom needs help for the disorder," the NIH says. "ADHD often continues into adulthood, and can cause a lifetime of frustrated dreams and emotional pain."
The government position is that diet changes won't help most children with ADD or ADHD. A NIH study in 1982 tested the theory that refined sugar and food additives make children hyperactive and inattentive. "After studying the data, the scientists concluded that the restricted diet only seemed to help about five percent of children with ADHD, mostly either young children or children with food allergies," NIH says. As a result, most pediatricians have been telling parents that diet isn't the problem, despite observations of many parents that certain foods, particularly chocolate, soda and other sweets, tend to make their kids bounce off the walls.
Change the Diet, Change the Kid
Laura J. Stevens, author of the book "Twelve Effective Ways to Help Your ADD/ADHD Child," and a researcher on the topic for 25 years, says more recent research is increasing the evidence that diet is an important element, particularly with ADHD, which displays itself as short attention spans combined with hyperactivity.
"The problem is it's different foods for different kids," says Stevens. "Helping your child with behavioral problems resembles solving a jigsaw puzzle. For one child, one 'piece' might be sensitivities to common foods and additives. A 'piece' for another child might be a marginal iron deficiency." A study published in the European Journal of Pediatrics in 1997 found that children with ADHD had changes in brain waves after being fed certain foods. About half reacted to sugar, with a smaller percentage of reactions being shown to artificial colors, wheat and milk.
Dr. William Sears (known as "America's Pediatrician") and Lydia Thompson, authors of "The ADD Book," say that while most studies have shown diet has little effect on ADD, "Try explaining this to a mother whose child goes wild after eating a Twinkie. As parents and professionals, we certainly believe in the food-mood connection in some children. Even though in the majority of cases children's diet is not the cause of the behavioral problem, it can certainly contribute to it."
Some studies that allegedly disprove the link between sugar and hyperactivity are questionable. "One study that achieved front-page prominence in a national newspaper concluded that sugar had no effect on behavior, yet the study included only 25 children each in the placebo and sugar diet group," Sears and Thompson say. "Healthy nutrition is important to all children; it is doubly important for a child with ADD. The better you feed the brain, the better it works. It stands to reason that unhealthy nutrition can lead to diminished brain function."
Dr. David Dugger, a pediatrician in Gautier, Mississippi, who specializes in treating ADD/ADHD, admits that studies haven't proven a link between sugar and hyperactivity, but he says poor nutrition can definitely lead to behavioral problems. "If all you feed a child is Coke and hot dogs, you shouldn't be surprised if he is too wired up to sleep," Dugger says. "The caffeine alone could have a bad effect on his behavior."
Testing the Wrong Foods
One reason why earlier research may have given physicians a bum steer on the diet/ADHD connection is that foods now considered to be a concern were not eliminated in the earlier diets tested: milk, chocolate, wheat, rye, corn, citrus, legumes and eggs.
In order to determine what's at fault, foods that commonly cause problems can be eliminated and then added back in one at a time to judge the reaction. Such diets should be done in consultation with a physician and a dietician.
Another option is getting an ELISA blood test for food sensitivities. Stevens says that despite allergists' advice, frustrated parents have found the results of the blood test useful in planning a diet without the foods that "turn their child on."
One problem for some children may be fatty acids deficiencies. Stevens has been involved in research at Purdue University that has shown about 40 percent of ADHD children studied had symptoms of such deficiencies. A later study supplementing the ADHD children with fatty acids has had promising results.
The Effects of Pollution
There is also evidence that pollution can cause behavioral changes in children. "Toxic chemicals pollute our air, soil, food and water and adversely affect our health," says Stevens. "Gases, cleaning fluids, formaldehyde, scents and other chemicals can make a child irritable, inattentive, spacey, aggressive, depressed or hyperactive."
Also, lead poisoning can mimic ADHD symptoms. Indoor mold and second-hand tobacco smoke can also affect children's health and behavior. Some experts suggest combining a toxic- and allergy-free environment with vitamin and mineral supplements. Rachel Bell and Dr. Howard Peiper, authors of "The ADD and ADHD Diet Book," also believe that food and environmental allergens are important.
"People with ADD/ADHD may be fine one minute and off the wall the next," say Bell and Peiper. "This behavior may not be random at all. It could be due to a blood sugar disturbance, mineral imbalance, toxic metals at the cellular level or other factors."
In the book "Is This Your Child's World?" and the video Environmentally Sick Schools, Dr. Doris Rapp demonstrates a decline in writing and drawing skills when children are exposed to toxic chemicals, as well as to certain foods, dust, mold and pollen. Children did poorly on tests after applications of cleaning chemicals or insecticides, or after exposure to common allergenic substances.
"These exposures bring about fatigue, headaches, intestinal problems, muscle aches, recurrent infections, bed wetting, hayfever, asthma, hives and learning and behavioral problems," says Rapp, who has been treating children with allergies and chemical sensitivities for more than 30 years.
Rapp doesn't understand why parents are being told to put their children on drugs that can have harmful side effects without first trying simple diet changes and eliminating toxins that may be causing the problems. She claims dramatic changes can occur in four to seven days.
Becky Gillette is a freelance writer based in Ocean Springs, Miss. This article originally appeared in E Magazine.