Are Three-fifths of Children Diagnosed with ADHD actually Experiencing a Hypersensitivity to Food?

March 23, 2011

Hyperactivity, fidgeting, inattention, and impulsivity are symptoms of ADHD, but might instead signify a child's hypersensitivty to food.

Children who are hyperactive, fidgety, inattentive, impulsive, or some combination of any of these qualities on a regular basis are often diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), making them among the roughly 10% of US children.

And for years, medications have been the main stay of treatment for these children, who can be restless and difficult to handle. But the results of a new study, published in The Lancet, suggest that food may be the key with a proposal that a very restrictive diet could help children with ADHD experience significant reductions in symptoms.

In many children, ADHD is triggered by external factors—according to study authors, lead by Dr. Lidy Pelsser, ADHD Research Centre, Netherlands—that can be treated through changes to one’s environment. "ADHD, it's just a couple of symptoms — it's not a disease," Pelsser said on NPR’s All Things Considered.

According to the researcher, the way ADHD-associated behaviors are thought about and treated is wrong. “There is a paradigm shift needed. If a child is diagnosed ADHD, we should say, 'OK, we have got those symptoms, now let's start looking for a cause,' " she said, then comparing ADHD to eczema. “The skin is affected, but a lot of people get eczema because of a latex allergy or because they are eating a pineapple or strawberries."

Not only can many kids with ADHD be treated successfully with a change to their diet, based on the current study results, they may not have the disorder at all. In fact, according to Pelsser, 64% of children who have been diagnosed with ADHD are really just experiencing a hypersensitivity to food. She came to this conclusion based on the current study, in which children were started on an elaborate diet that was then restricted over the course of a few weeks.

"It's only five weeks," Pelsser said. "If it is the diet, then we start to find out which foods are causing the problems."

Teachers and physicians who took part in the study reported marked improvements in many children’s behavior. "In fact, they were flabbergasted," Pelsser said. "After the diet, they were just normal children with normal behavior." Some teachers who participated in the study were skeptical of the restricted diet’s ability to change behaviors, noted the researcher. “It was so strange, that a diet would change the behavior of a child as thoroughly as they saw it,” she added. “It was a miracle, a teacher said."

Pelsser admits that diet isn’t the solution for all kids with ADHD. "In all children, we should start with diet research," she said, adding that drug therapy may still be necessary if behaviors don’t change. "But now we are giving them all drugs, and I think that's a huge mistake," she stated.

The Dutch researcher also warns that parents not change a child’s diet without the supervision of a physician, but physicians aren’t all qualified for making dietary recommendations.

"We have got good news—that food is the main cause of ADHD," Pelsser said. "We've got bad news—that we have to train physicians to monitor this procedure because it cannot be done by a physician who is not trained."