What is ADHD?

What are the signs of ADHD? How is it diagnosed and can diet help? Our dietitian looks at the effect of everything from e-numbers to fizzy drinks and fish oils...

ADHD guide

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition with a persistent pattern of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity in which children find it very difficult to focus their attention or control their behaviour.

How common is it?

The prevalence of ADHD is estimated to be around 2% in children in the UK and is more commonly diagnosed in boys. It is most often diagnosed aged three to seven years but it may not be recognised until later in life or adulthood. Some believe there may be an association with allergies such as eczema, asthma and rhinitis, however there is a lack of robust evidence to confirm this. 

What are the symptons? 

Children with ADHD demonstrate symptoms of restlessness and are unable to sit still for very long.  They are easily distracted as they find it hard to pay attention and are often criticised for being careless and making too many mistakes. Some appear not to listen and find it very hard to wait their turn and can be disruptive during play.

If you think your child is demonstrating these symptoms and may have ADHD, you should discuss it with your child’s teacher and school nurse and you should also see your GP. They may refer your child to a paediatrician or child psychiatrist who is qualified to carry out a full assessment distinguishing ADHD from other similar conditions.   

Can diet help or hinder?

Dietary intervention can play a role in treating ADHD and knowing the correct information is vital. The first steps which may help hyperactivity in children and young people are to ensure healthy meals and snacks are structured at regular intervals and specific foods and additives are avoided:

  • Caffeine containing foods and drinks such as dark chocolate, tea, coffee or cola.  These should be reduced slowly over a few days to avoid any ‘withdrawal symptoms’.  Water, milk, diluted fruit juice with water are all suitable alternatives.
     
  • High sugar items which cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, often referred to as a ‘sugar rush’ which may affect behaviour.  Low GI starchy foods such as granary bread, brown pasta and rice should be offered to maintain a steady blood sugar level.
     
  • Artificial food colourings – research suggests that artificial food colouring increases hyperactivity in children who are known to demonstrate hyperactive behaviour.  Soft and fizzy drinks, corn snacks such as Wotsits and Nik Naks and some jams and desserts all contain food colourings and are best avoided at all times.

If you do make the above changes to your child's diet, they need to be followed for a number of weeks in order to see any benefit. If there are no improvements with your child’s behaviour, a specialist restrictive elimination diet may be beneficial.  Research has demonstrated that an elimination diet can have a beneficial effect on ADHD in some children.  However, it is a very challenging diet to follow so before you embark on this, it is essential to seek specialist advice from your GP or request to see a specialist dietitian.

There is emerging evidence about the use of omega-3 fish oils in the treatment of ADHD.  While initial results suggest supplementation may improve memory function, it has no effect on behaviour. It is therefore not recommended to start omega-3 supplements in children with ADHD.

ADHD is a complex condition that requires specialist input and advice.  If you are concerned about your child and believe they may need help, contact your GP and seek advice from a specialist dietitian before embarking on any dietary treatment.



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This article was published on 27 January 2017. Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

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Frank J Madden
22nd Feb, 2017
This is a totally pointless article, the key sentence -- "ADHD is a complex condition that requires specialist input and advice" -- invalidates the clickbait headline and intro. It is a disgrace. There is nothing in this piece which is of any use to anyone whatsoever. Note to editors: please check content of such fluff and counsel the writer concerned.
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