The American Psychiatric Association estimates that five percent of American children have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). For these children, returning to school often means academically reassessing the symptoms of ADHD – a neurobehavioral condition characterized by consistent patterns of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity that interferes with activities of daily living and/or development. The condition has many contributing factors but nutrition is often one of the major influences in ADHD.
Heading back to school often means heading back to the school lunch program, which can actually be contributing to the nutritional causes of ADHD. To be fair, school lunch programs vary in quality, from those that are nutrient-dense, health conscious and vegetable-centric, to those that are fast-food oriented and comparable to a microwave dinner at best. In addition, school lunch only provides one meal, while family eating habits make up a large portion of nutrition for children.
Many nutritional factors have been strongly linked to ADHD. Food additives, refined sugars, food sensitivities/allergies and fatty acid deficiencies have all been associated with studies corroborating the claim. In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatricians officially linked ADHD to the consumption of artificial food dyes after reviewing a British study published in the journal, Lancet. Researchers found links between sodium benzoate found in food dyes increasing hyperactivity in children, and noted that some children were negatively impacted to larger degree than others. Trials of preservative-free, food coloring-free diets had a positive impact on symptoms.
Many people anecdotally report hyperactivity associated with sugar in both their children and themselves. However, evidence about the negative links on ADHD has not been easily produced due to inconsistencies in test setting and controls. A few studies, though, have found association between sugar-concentrated drinks and focus issues in children. In one study published in 2015, children who consumed large amounts of sugary drinks were up to three times more likely to have an ADHD diagnoses compared with those who did not consume sugary beverages.
In contrast to sugar studies, food sensitivities/allergies and low intake of essential fatty acids have been well documented to contribute to hyperactivity, lack of focus and impulsivity. In a 2015 meta-analysis journal review, elimination diets and fish oil supplementation (containing both eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) with levels totaling 3,000 mg) were the most overwhelming dietary interventions noted for a reducing ADHD symptoms in children. Elimination diets often isolate inflammatory food, such as dairy, eggs, gluten and soy.
As you can see, the evidence is overwhelming that dietary modifications play major roles in managing ADHD and are imperative to treatment success. Nutrition is often an evaluation of food as medicine or food as poison. Just as good diet choices play a positive role, poor food options absolutely aggravate symptoms. It is certainly up to the child to learn how to make these choices for him/herself. However, when faced with poor options at home and school, creating healthy outcomes is challenging. It is of vital importance that educators, school administrators, parents, family members and dietitians understand and acknowledge the links between nutrition and behavior management. So pay attention to what your children are eating, or they’ll have a hard time paying attention at all.
Amy Nelson, ND* received her Naturopathic Doctorate from the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, OR where she studied nutrition, homeopathy, herbal and functional medicine. In addition, Dr. Nelson was the Associate at The IBS Treatment Center in Santa Monica where she treated irritable bowel syndrome and complex food allergies. Dr. Nelson utilizes her experience in natural medicine to address female and male hormonal imbalances, mental health, and digestive disorders.