Many parents (and researchers for that matter) wonder if dietary changes could supplement treatment that includes behavioral therapy, coaching, school support, medication, and parent education in the treatment of ADHD. While there is a lot of research on the topic, the results are not conclusive. Here are three dietary interventions that have received the most attention; exposure to artificial colors and additives, improved intake of omega-3 fats and micronutrients.
Since the 1970s, researchers have investigated whether the artificial coloring and additives found in many commercially prepared and "junk" foods might contribute to hyperactivity or other symptoms of ADHD. In a study that examined preschoolers and elementary students in the UK, the investigators found a mild but significant increase in hyperactivity in both younger and older age groups of children — across the board, regardless of baseline hyperactivity levels —when they consumed drinks containing artificial colors. It is worthy to note that these results convinced the United Kingdom's Food Standards Agency (roughly equivalent to the FDA) to urge food manufacturers to remove six artificial coloring agents from food marketed to children.
It can only be beneficial to limit the major sources of artificial colors and additives — candy, junk food, brightly-colored cereals, fruit drinks, and soda — from a child's diet for a few weeks, to see if symptoms improve. However, studies of sugar elimination have shown that parents may wrongly assume that changes in their child's behavior reflect consumption of a "problem" food.
Omega -3 fatty acids fuel basic cell functioning, improve overall immunity, and enhance heart health. The body cannot make essential fatty acids, so these nutrients must be consumed in the diet from salmon, tuna, and other cold-water fish, as well as from some seeds and oils.
Researchers have explored whether a deficiency of omega-3s and 6s might contribute to symptoms of ADHD because they perform a number of functions in the brain involved in the transmission of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. While studies are inconclusive, the recommendations of the APA is to encourage children with ADHD to consume levels of omega-3 fatty acids recommended as part of a healthy diet. For children, that means consuming up to 12 ounces (two average meals) a week of a variety of fish that are low in mercury (canned light tuna, salmon) along with daily plant sources of unsaturated fats.
Lastly, deficiencies of particular micronutrients vitamins or minerals like zinc, iron, magnesium, and vitamin B6 have been documented in children with ADHD. But the results of trials testing whether supplementation with vitamins or minerals alleviates ADHD symptoms have been inconsistent.
A diet or dietary supplement that eases the symptoms of ADHD would be a boon for anyone living with this disruptive disorder. So far, though, science provides only limited support for restrictive diets. A healthful diet may reduce symptoms of ADHD by reducing exposure to artificial colors and additives and improving intake of omega-3 fats and micronutrients. But it certainly will improve overall health and nutrition, and set the stage for a lifetime of good health.