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Do Sugar and Diet Cause ADHD?

Margaret V. Austin, Ph.D., edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

It was once popularly believed that too much sugar was the cause of ADHD. We can put that myth to rest. Research has clearly demonstrated that nutrition and eating habits do not cause ADHD. However, that said, there are some indications that children with this disorder are metabolically different from others.

It is safe to say that poor nutrition negatively affects everyone's health. However, the relationship between nutrition and ADHD specifically, is unclear. Too much sugar, too many refined foods, too many artificial foods and food substances, too few fruits and vegetables, red food dyes, and a deficiency in Omega-3 fatty acids, have all been suggested as potential factors that can aggravate ADHD. Nonetheless, current research does not support these assertions. Reportedly, some children with ADHD do better with healthier, more natural foods. However, this improvement is not unique to children with ADHD.

The Feingold Diet has acquired some devotees. However, the scientific community does not support this diet to prevent or treat ADHD. The Feingold Diet originally began as an elimination diet to identify food allergies. However, changes in behavior were noted in children on the diet. The Feingold Diet involves removing salicylates from the diet. Salicylates are plant compounds that are used as preservatives in processed food products, and artificial colors and flavors. Certain synthetic preservatives are also removed from children's diets. Artificial preservatives, colors, etc. are in nearly every processed food. Unlike 20-30 years ago, the standard American diet (SAD) is now almost entirely processed foods. Proponents of the Feingold diet suggest that the buildup caused by frequent ingestion of these products may be part of the reason behind dramatic increases in ADHD. More research is needed to better understand the impact, if any, of salicylates on ADHD.

Does breastfeeding prevent ADHD?

Children who have been breastfed at least six months are less likely to develop ADHD than children who are bottle fed. Some researchers speculate that the presence of Omega-3 fatty acids (essential fats that promote healthy brain development) in breast milk plays a protective role. As a result, many manufacturers now add these healthy acids to infant formulas. It is also thought that a lack of Omega-3 fatty acids in older children's diets can exacerbate existing ADHD. More research is necessary to determine the dietary role of Omega-3 fatty acids in ADHD.