Inside: Find out whether diet changes can help kids with ADHD. Here’s what you need to know!
This is a guest post by pediatric dietitian Jill Castle, MS, RDN.
Is There an ADHD Diet That Works?
By Jill Castle, MS, RDN
It’s well known that food and nutrients have a powerful impact on the daily functioning in kids with ADHD, particularly in common symptoms such as hyperactivity, concentration, and behavior.
But what if your child is also dealing with additional challenges–eczema, asthma, or GI problems like constipation or diarrhea? You may be thinking about placing your child on a special diet. Special diets like the elimination diet have been around for years, and some of these diets have a proven track record. Other diets, however, are experimental with unknown outcomes.
Let’s walk through a few things you should think about before you place your child on a special diet.
Take Stock Of Current Diet and Eating Patterns
What does your child eat, day in and day out? What times does he eat during the day? What types of food does she like to eat?
In my experience, there may be room for improvement here. It’s not uncommon to see ADHD kids with a repetitive diet, a bland diet, or a diet missing nutritious, wholesome foods. If kids are regularly taking medications, low appetite and erratic eating may be a factor.
A desirable diet for children with ADHD includes nutrient-dense foods that contain quality protein sources, complex carbohydrates, fiber, omega-3 fats and micronutrients that aid in growth, development, and optimal brain and body functioning. An eating routine that showcases three meals and a few snacks each day is also helpful.
Alternatively, an undesirable diet is unbalanced, favoring sugary foods, highly processed foods, and refined grains. Skipping meals and erratic eating patterns complicate the picture because it becomes harder to regularly match nutritional needs.
If there’s room for improvement with your child’s current food choices and eating patterns, focus your efforts here first.
Special Diets with a Proven Track Record
You may have heard of the Elimination Diet or the Feingold Diet; they’ve been around for decades and have some research to back them up. What’s important to note for all special diets: If you take foods out of the diet, you’ll want to find nutritious replacements. While special diets have helped many children, there may be negative consequences associated with them if your child’s eating worsens, food variety suffers, or they simply aren’t managed well.
Elimination diets are meant to eliminate a potential allergen or artificial ingredient that may have allergenic effects. There are 3 types of elimination diets:
Single food diet where one food item is eliminated, like eggs.
Multi-food exclusion diet where a group of foods are eliminated.
Few foods diet where the diet is strictly limited to a couple of foods. This last diet is very restrictive and should be done under the supervision of a dietitian and/or doctor.
Generally, elimination diets are short-term, lasting two to three weeks, and are used to pinpoint the foods that are problematic for the child. Once the culprit is identified, a child returns to a regular diet without the offending food or foods. Elimination diets are not long-term; but the offending food can be removed indefinitely (or it can be re-tried, or gradually added back to the diet later on). Always find nutritious substitutes for the foods removed from the diet.
The Feingold Diet
The Feingold Diet removes foods containing synthetic food colors such as Red #40 or Yellow #5. Naturally occurring salicylates may be removed as well, depending on a child’s sensitivity to them. They are found in healthy, wholesome foods like cherries and grapes.
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The Gluten-free, Casein-Free Diet
This diet removes wheat, barley and rye (and oats that are contaminated with gluten during the manufacturing process) and all dairy foods from the diet. This diet has been researched and used more commonly with autism, and is most successful when guided by a trained nutrition professional.
What Special Diets Look Like in Real Life
You can imagine that following a special diet is hard work. Not only do you need to be versed in what your child must avoid, but more importantly, what your child can eat. The challenge will always be offering a healthy, balanced, varied diet that meets your child’s nutrient requirements.
This isn’t easy. In fact, it can be quite tricky.
There are a few risks you should know about when embarking on a special diet. Number one, many of these diets are restrictive. They narrow your child’s food variety. If your child’s favorite foods are on the “remove” list, it can be hard on everyone. You may see a significant dip in your child’s eating and if ongoing, a detriment to his weight, growth, and nutritional status. Having a nutrition professional to support you can ease the process and ensure your child stays healthy and reaps the benefits of a special diet.
Another consideration for many parents is the fact that they need to cook more, read more labels, plan ahead, and be more alert to their child’s diet than ever before. I know families who are committed to this, and they are thriving in this task (and so is their child). I also know other families that are unable to add this in to their family lifestyle.
A special diet can be the answer to feeling better and notable improvements in a child’s daily functioning. Certainly, watching a child’s daily life improve is the incentive many families need to keep going.
Ask Yourself: Is This Special Diet Working?
Anytime you adopt a special diet for a child with ADHD, you should step back at some point and ask, Is this working?
The fact is, for some kids it will work, and for others it won’t. Because these diets tend to be limited in food variety, if you’re not seeing functional improvements, it doesn’t make sense to keep your child restricted in his eating for long periods of time as it increases the risk for nutritional deficits and other problems.
If your child is doing better on a special diet, be sure to periodically check on growth, food variety, and nutritional status to make sure he or she is thriving.
Jill Castle is a registered dietitian, childhood nutrition expert, blogger, and podcaster at The Nourished Child.