ADHD Diet VS Medication for ADHD

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Drugs and Health, Food and Health, Health Current Events, Vitamins and Health

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

what causes adhd in kidsI came across a headline in our local newspaper recently that said “Try Nutrition, Not Drugs, for ADHD”. The article made claims like “No good evidence exists to support the ADHD disease hypothesis” and “…on numerous occasions we have seen ADHD symptoms completely disappear without medication”.

As a scientist, I am always a little skeptical about bold claims that run counter to established scientific wisdom. However, the authors of this article implied that their claims were based on a 2012 article in Pediatrics, which is a highly respected journal in its field, so I decided to investigate the article (Millichap and Yee, Pediatrics, 129: 1-8, 2012).

The article was written by two pediatricians with extensive experience treating children with ADHD. The article turned out to be a pretty thorough review of the literature on nutritional approaches for controlling ADHD. It did not approach the rigor of a meta-analysis study. Rather, it is what I refer to as an “interpretive review”. By that I mean that the clinical studies were interpreted in part on the basis of their clinical experience in treating children with ADHD.

Interpretive reviews can be either good or bad, depending on the objectiveness of the reviewers. In this case, I was familiar with many of the clinical studies they reviewed and found their interpretations to be accurate, so I decided to share their conclusions with you.

 

Is an ADHD Diet Better Than Medication For ADHD?

 

They reviewed all of the major nutritional approaches that have been used over the years to control ADHD. Let me start by saying that they are not wild-eyed proponents of “a nuts and berries diet cures all”. In fact, they use medications as the primary intervention for most of their ADHD patients. They advocate an ADHD diet approach when:

  • Medicines fail or there are adverse reactions (side effects).
  • The parents or the patients prefer a more natural approach.
  • There are symptoms or signs of a mineral deficiency (more about that below).
  • There is a need to substitute an ADHD-free healthy diet for an ADHD-linked diet (Simply put, if the child’s diet is bad enough, there are multiple benefits from switching to a healthier diet – a possible reduction in ADHD symptoms is just one of them.)

I will summarize their key findings below:

Do Omega-3 Fatty Acids Reduce ADHD Symptoms?

can foods cause adhd in kidsThe authors reported that a number of studies have shown that children with ADHD tend to have low levels of essential fatty acids, especially the omega-3 fatty acids. They cite several studies which showed significant improvement in reading skills and reductions in ADHD symptoms when children with ADHD were give omega-3 supplements, but also noted that other studies showed no effect.They postulated that some children may benefit more from omega-3 supplementation than others.

They routinely use doses of 300-600 mg of omega-3s with their ADHD patients. They find that this intervention reduces ADHD symptoms in many children, but does not completely eliminate the need for medications.

My Two Cents: I have previously reported on the improvement in reading skills(Omega-3’s Improve Reading Skills) and reduction in ADHD symptoms (Can Fish Oil Make Children Smarter?) when children were given omega-3 supplements. In both cases, it was the children with the lowest omega-3 levels who benefitted most. No surprise there. Whether it will help your child is anyone’s guess. However, it is a natural approach with no side effects. It is certainly worth trying.

Does the Elimination of Food Additives Reduce ADHD Symptoms?

artificial food colorsThe current interest in food additives and ADHD originated with the Feingold diet. The Feingold diet eliminated food additives, foods with salicylates (apples, grapes, luncheon meats, sausage, hot dogs and drinks containing artificial colors and flavors), and chemical preservatives (e.g. BHA and BHT). It was popularized in the 1970s when some proponents claimed that it reduced ADHD symptoms in 50% of the children treated. After clinical studies showed that only a small percentage of children actually benefitted from this diet, it rapidly fell out of favor.

However, Millichap and Yee pointed out that more recent studies have shown that the subset of children who responded to the Feingold diet were not a “statistical blip”. A recent review of the literature reported that when children with suspected sensitivities to food additives were challenged with artificial food colors, 65–89% of them displayed ADHD symptoms.

My Two Cents: I have previously reported on the effects of artificial food colors on ADHD (Do Artificial Colors Cause Hyperactivity?). The studies I reviewed in this article reported that up to 28% of children with ADHD were sensitive to the amount of artificial food colors in the typical western diet and that removing those food colors resulted in a significant improvement in ADHD symptoms. Plus, those studies were just looking at food colors – not the hundreds of other food additives in the average American child’s diet.

I consider food additives to be problematic for many reasons. Even if doesn’t reduce their ADHD symptoms, eliminating as many of those food additives as possible is probably a good idea. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Just replacing processed foods and sodas with fresh fruits and vegetables and with low fat milk and natural fruit juices diluted with water to reduce their sugar content might make a significant difference in your child’s ADHD symptoms.

Food Sensitivities

Even natural foods can be a problem for children with food sensitivities, and it appears that there may be a large percentage of hyperactive children with food sensitivities. Millichap and Yee reported that elimination diets (diets that eliminate all foods which could cause food sensitivity) improve behavior in 76-82% of hyperactive children.

Even though this approach can be very effective Millichap and Yee don’t normally recommend it for their patients because it is difficult and time-consuming. The elimination diet is very restrictive and needs to be followed for a few weeks. Then individual foods need to be added back one at a time until the offending food(s) are identified. (They reported that antigen testing is not a particularly effective way of identifying food sensitivities associated with hyperactivity)

My Two Cents: I have previously reported on the link between food sensitivities and hyperactivity (What Causes ADHD?). I agree with Millichap and Yee that elimination diets are difficult and view this as something to be tried after all other natural approaches have failed. However, if there is a particular food that causes hyperactivity in your child, identifying it and eliminating it from their diet could just be something that will benefit them for the rest of their life.

Sugar

SugarThis is a particularly interesting topic. Many parents are absolutely convinced that sugary foods cause hyperactivity in their children, but the experts are saying that clinical studies have disproven that hypothesis. They claim that sugar has absolutely no effect on hyperactivity.

Millichap and Yee have an interesting perspective on the subject. They agree that clinical studies show that a sugar load does not affect behavior or cognitive function in small children, but they point to numerous clinical studies showing that the reactive hypoglycemia that occurs an hour or two after a sugar load adversely affects cognitive function in children, and that some children are more adversely affected than others.

My Two Cents: Reducing intake of refined sugars in your child’s diet makes sense for many reasons, especially considering the role of sugar intake in obesity. If your child has a tendency towards reactive hypoglycemia, it may also reduce ADHD symptoms.

Does Eliminating Iron and Zinc Deficiencies Reduce ADHD Symptoms?

Millichap and Yee reporting some studies suggested that iron and zinc deficiencies may be associated with ADHD symptoms, and recommend supplementation with an iron or zinc supplement when there is a documented deficiency.

My Two Cents: A simpler and less expensive approach would be a children’s multivitamin to prevent the possibility of iron or zinc deficiency. Of course, I would recommend that you choose one without artificial colors, preservatives and sweeteners.

Does Eating A Healthy Diet Reduce ADHD Symptoms?

Millichap and Yee closed their review by discussing a recent study in Australia that reported a significant reduction in ADHD symptoms in children eating “Healthy” diets (fish, vegetables, tomato, fresh fruit, whole grains & low fat dairy products) compared to children eating “Western” diets (Fast foods, red meat, processed meats, processed snacks, high fat dairy products & soft drinks). This is the ADHD diet approach, along with omega-3 supplementation, that they recommend most frequently for their patients.

My Two Cents: I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, if you and your family were to follow a “Healthy” diet instead of a “Western” diet it would likely have numerous health benefits. Plus, you are automatically removing ADHD triggers like food additives and sugar from your child’s diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent review of natural approaches for controlling ADHD symptoms (Millichap and Yee, Pediatrics, 129: 1-8, 2012) is both good news and bad news. The good news is that there are multiple nutritional approaches that can significantly reduce ADHD symptoms. These include:

  • Use of omega-3 supplements. They recommended 300-600 mg/day.
  • Removal of food additives (particularly food colors) from the diet.
  • Identification of food sensitivities and removal of those foods from the diet.
  • Reducing the amount of simple sugars in the diet.
  • Elimination of iron and zinc deficiencies if they exist (Iron deficiency is relatively common in American children. Zinc deficiency is not.) Alternatively, I recommend a children’s multivitamin to prevent iron and zinc deficiencies in the first place.
  • Eating a healthy diet rather than a Western diet. This also has the benefit of reducing the amount of food additives and sugars in the diet.

The bad news is that each of these approaches seems to work only in a subset of children with ADHD.

  • If you are a parent who is interested in a natural alternative to ADHD stimulant medications this means you may need to be patient and try several natural approaches until you find the one(s) that work(s) best for your child. The benefit of making the effort is that all of these approaches will also improve the health of your child in other important ways, and none of them have any side effects.
  • Unfortunately, the physician with only about 10 minutes to spend with each patient (which is increasingly the medical model in this country), may not have time to explore natural options. Medications are much easier to prescribe. You may need to be the one who takes the responsibility of exploring natural alternatives for your child.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (1)

  • MJ Lucas

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    Great info to share with all! Thanks Dr. Chaney!!

    MJ & Jenn

    Reply

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Latest Article

A Low Carb Diet and Weight Loss

Posted January 15, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

low carb dietTraditional diets have been based on counting calories, but are all calories equal? Low-carb enthusiasts have long claimed that diets high in sugar and refined carbs cause obesity. Their hypothesis is based on the fact that high blood sugar levels cause a spike in insulin levels, and insulin promotes fat storage.

The problem is that there has been scant evidence to support that hypothesis. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 32 published clinical studies (KD Hall and J Guo, Gastroenterology, 152: 1718-1727, 2017 ) concluded that low-fat diets resulted in a higher metabolic rate and greater fat loss than isocaloric low-carbohydrate diets.

However, low-carb enthusiasts persisted. They argued that the studies included in the meta-analysis were too short to adequately measure the metabolic effects of a low-carb diet. Recently, a study has been published in the British Medical Journal (CB Ebbeling et al, BMJ 2018, 363:k4583 ) that appears to vindicate their position.

Are low carb diets best for long term weight loss?

Low-carb enthusiasts claim the study conclusively shows that low-carb diets are best for losing weight and for keeping it off once you have lost it. They are saying that it is time to shift away from counting calories and from promoting low-fat diets and focus on low-carb diets instead if we wish to solve the obesity epidemic. In this article I will focus on three issues:

  • How good was the study?
  • What were its limitations?
  • Are the claims justified?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

low carb diet studyThe investigators started with 234 overweight adults (30% male, 78% white, average age 40, BMI 32) recruited from the campus of Framingham State University in Massachusetts. All participants were put on a diet that restricted calories to 60% of estimated needs for 10 weeks. The diet consisted of 45% of calories from carbohydrate, 30% from fat, and 25% from protein. [So much for the claim that the study showed low-carb diets were more effective for weight loss. The diet used for the weight loss portion of the diet was not low-carb.]

During the initial phase of the study 161 of the participants achieved 10% weight loss. These participants were randomly divided into 3 groups for the weight maintenance phase of the study.

  • The diet composition of the high-carb group was 60% carbohydrate, 20% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the moderate-carb group was 40% carbohydrate, 40% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the low-carb group was 20% carbohydrate, 60% fat, and 20% protein.

Other important characteristics of the study were:

  • The weight maintenance portion of the study lasted 5 months – much longer than any previous study.
  • All meals were designed by dietitians and prepared by a commercial food service. The meals were either served in a cafeteria or packaged to be taken home by the participants.
  • The caloric content of the meals was individually adjusted on a weekly basis so that weight was kept within a ± 4-pound range during the 5-month maintenance phase.
  • Sugar, saturated fat, and sodium were limited and kept relatively constant among the 3 diets.

120 participants made it through the 5-month maintenance phase.

 

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

low carb diet maintain weight lossThe results were striking:

  • The low-carb group burned an additional 278 calories/day compared to the high-carb group and 131 calories/day more than the moderate-carbohydrate group.
  • These differences were even higher for those individuals with higher insulin secretion at the beginning of the maintenance phase of the study.
  • These differences lead the authors to hypothesize that low-carb diets might be more effective for weight maintenance than other diets.

 

What Are The Pros And Cons Of This Study?

low carb diet pros and consThis was a very well-done study. In fact, it is the most ambitious and well-controlled study of its kind. However, like any other clinical study, it has its limitations. It also needs to be repeated.

The pros of the study are obvious. It was a long study and the dietary intake of the participants was tightly controlled.

As for cons, here are the three limitations of the study listed by the authors:

#1: Potential Measurement Error: This section of the paper was a highly technical consideration of the method used to measure energy expenditure. Suffice it to say that the method they used to measure calories burned per day may overestimate calories burned in the low-carb group. That, of course, would invalidate the major findings of the study. It is unlikely, but it is why the study needs to be repeated using a different measure of energy expenditure.

#2: Compliance: Although the participants were provided with all their meals, there was no way of being sure they ate them. There was also no way of knowing whether they may have eaten other foods in addition to the food they were provided. Again, this is unlikely, but cannot be eliminated from consideration.

#3: Generalizability: This is simply an acknowledgement that the greatest strength of this study is also its greatest weakness. The authors acknowledged that their study was conducted in such a tightly controlled manner it is difficult to translate their findings to the real world. For example:

  • Sugar and saturated fat were restricted and were at very similar levels in all 3 diets. In the real world, people consuming a high-carb diet are likely to consume more sugar than people in the other diet groups. Similarly, people consuming the low-carb diet are likely to consume more saturated fat than people in the other diet groups.
  • Weight was kept constant in the weight maintenance phase by constantly adjusting caloric intake. Unfortunately, this seldom happens in the real world. Most people gain weight once they go off their diet – and this is just as true with low-carb diets as with other diets.
  • The participants had access to dietitian-designed prepared meals 3 times a day for 5 months. This almost never happens in the real world. The authors said “…these results [their data] must be reconciled with the long-term weight loss trials relying on nutrition education and behavioral counseling that find only a small advantage for low carbohydrate compared with low fat diets according to several recent meta-analyses.” [I would add that in the real world, people do not even have access to nutritional education and behavioral modification.]

 

low carb diet and youWhat Does This Study Mean For You?

  • This study shows that under very tightly controlled conditions (dietitian-prepared meals, sugar and saturated fat limited to healthy levels, calories continually adjusted so that weight remains constant) a low-carb diet burns more calories per day than a moderate-carb or high-carb diet. These findings show that it is theoretically possible to increase your metabolic weight and successfully maintain a healthy weight on a low-carb diet. These are the headlines you probably saw. However, a careful reading of the study provides a much more nuanced viewpoint. For example, the fact that the study conditions were so tightly controlled makes it difficult to translate these findings to the real world.
  • In fact, the authors of the study acknowledged that multiple clinical studies show this almost never happens in the real world. These studies show that most people regain the weight they have lost on low-carb diets. More importantly, the rate of weight regain is virtually identical on low-carb and low-fat diets. Consequently, the authors of the current study concluded “…translation [of their results to the real world] requires exploration in future mechanistic oriented research.” Simply put, the authors are saying that more research is needed to provide a mechanistic explanation for this discrepancy before one can make recommendations that are relevant to weight loss and weight maintenance in the real world.
  • The authors also discussed the results of their study in light of a recent, well-designed 12-month study (CD Gardener et al, JAMA, 319: 667-669, 2018 ) that showed no difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat versus a healthy low-carbohydrate diet. That study also reported that the results were unaffected by insulin secretion at baseline. The authors of the current study noted that “…[in the previous study] participants were instructed to minimize or eliminate refined grains and added sugars and maximize intake of vegetables. Probably for this reason, the reported glycemic load [effect of the diet on blood sugar levels] of the low-fat diet was very low…and similar to [the low-carb diet].” In short, the authors of the current study were acknowledging that diets which focus on healthy, plant-based carbohydrates and eliminate sugar, refined grains, and processed foods may be as effective as low-carb diets for helping maintain a healthy weight.
  • This would also be consistent with previous studies showing that primarily plant-based, low-carb diets are more effective at maintaining a healthy weight and better health outcomes long-term than the typical American version of the low-fat diet, which is high in sugar and refined grains. In contrast, meat-based, low-carb diets are no more effective than the American version of the low-fat diet at preventing weight gain and poor health outcomes. I have covered these studies in detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

Consequently, the lead author of the most recent study has said: “The findings [of this study] do not impugn whole fruits, beans and other unprocessed carbohydrates. Rather, the study suggests that reducing foods with added sugar, flour, and other refined carbohydrates could help people maintain weight loss….” This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study compared the calories burned per day on a low-carb, moderate-carb, and high-carb diet. The study concluded that the low-carb diet burned significantly more calories per day than the other two diets and might be suitable for long-term weight control. If confirmed by subsequent studies, this would be the first real evidence that low-carb diets are superior for maintaining a healthy weight.
  • However, the study has some major limitations. For example, it used a methodology that may overestimate the benefits of a low-carb diet, and it was performed under tightly controlled conditions that can never be duplicated in the real world. As acknowledged by the authors, this study is also contradicted by multiple previous studies. Further studies will be required to confirm the results of this study and show how it can be applied in the real world.
  • In addition, the kind of carbohydrate in the diet is every bit as important as the amount of carbohydrate. The authors acknowledge that the differences seen in their study apply mainly to carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, and processed foods. They advocate diets with low glycemic load (small effects on blood sugar and insulin levels) and acknowledge this can also be achieved by incorporating low-glycemic load, plant-based carbohydrates into your diet. This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.
  • Finally, clinical studies report averages, but none of us are average. When you examine the data from the current study, it is evident that some participants burned more calories per hour on the high-carb diet than other participants did on the low carb diet. That reinforces the observation that some people lose weight more effectively on low-carb diets while others lose weight more effectively on low-fat diets. If you are someone who does better on a low-carb diet, the best available evidence suggests you will have better long-term health outcomes on a primarily plant-based, low-carb diet such as the low-carb version of the Mediterranean diet.

For more details read the article above.

 

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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