r. Rebecca Carey admits to being a little embarrassed about what her son, Mark, eats every day. Hamburger patties for breakfast, or bacon. A pack of raisins and a cookie for lunch; a turkey and cheese sandwich “if I’m lucky,” says Carey, but it usually comes back home. His favorite dinner is fish cakes and pasta, but all vegetables remain firmly untouched.
It’s the kind of diet — low in fruits and vegetables, high in carbs — that a doctor like herself might caution against. But it’s also low in milk, sugar, and artificial food additives — all things Carey believes worsen 10-year-old Mark’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, symptoms. Twice a day, in the morning at their home in Newburgh, Ind., and from the school nurse at lunch, he takes a vitamin and mineral supplement, which helps make up for the lack of veggies.
It’s been six months on this diet, which Carey researched herself and tested out on Mark, and in that time he has transitioned off his ADHD medication. It wasn’t all smooth sailing; there were fights in the candy section of the grocery store, and Carey struggled to find quick, high-protein breakfasts. “But honestly, I would never go back,” she said.
Carey is not the only one who’s trying this approach. Medication and therapy remain the most effective treatments for ADHD. But driven by concerns about the short- and long-term side effects of psychiatric medications on children, some parents are looking for ways to keep their kids on lower doses of the drugs, or to quit the drugs entirely.
But addressing ADHD symptoms by changing diet can be a minefield. For one thing, while some diet interventions have scientific evidence to back them up, others don’t — and even the ones that do only seem effective for a subset of kids. Diet tweaks are oftentimes pretty harmless to try, but not universally so. And most pediatricians aren’t nearly as familiar with these approaches as they are with conventional medication.
So amid a lot of confusing and contradictory information on the internet, and a big nutrition knowledge gap in the medical system, parents at their wits’ end are mapping out their own treatment plans through trial and error over the dinner table.
As of 2011, the latest data1 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show, at least 6.4 million children in the US had been diagnosed with ADHD. Only about 6 percent are taking medication for the condition. The vast majority, then, are doing something else — perhaps counseling, or other forms of treatment, or nothing at all.
The most common types of drug used for ADHD are methylphenidate and amphetamine, both stimulants that work on the central nervous system, sold under brand names Ritalin and Adderall. These drugs are considered the most effective ADHD treatment. Less is known, however, about the drugs’ long-term effects. Common side effects include loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, and anxiousness.
Those side effects became a problem for Mark soon after he was first diagnosed with ADHD in kindergarten. At home, he’d always been a sensitive, irritable child, but in the classroom he started having “freakouts,” said Carey: throwing things, hiding under his desk, biting other students. Carey’s pediatrician put Mark through a behavioral test, found he measured high on the ADHD spectrum, and prescribed him behavioral therapy and Concerta, another common brand of methylphenidate.