Is It Really ADHD Or Could Your Child’s Diet Be Playing a Role?

It’s no secret that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children being diagnosed with ADHD over the past 20 years. But does this mean that ADHD is on the rise? Most medical professionals do not believe this is necessarily the case. Some believe that it can be attributed to a rise in awareness about the condition of a lack of stigma when it comes to seeking diagnoses. Others believe that doctors and parents are over-eager to arrive at a diagnosis.

While nearly every major medical organization agrees that ADHD is a valid condition, diagnosis can be tricky. For example, the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) states that patients only need to exhibit five out of 18 possible symptoms to qualify for a diagnosis. These include a lack of attention to detail, poor organization, and feelings of restlessness.

With this in mind, is it possible that some doctors are too quick to diagnose ADHD? Could there be something else at play contributing to a child’s behavioral issues? Some experts believe that environmental factors such as poor nutrition, increased use of electronics, and sleep deprivation can result in behaviors that mimic the symptoms of ADHD or exasperate the symptoms for children who do actually have ADHD.

Diet and behavioral issues in children

Dana Kay is a board-certified holistic health and nutrition practitioner and the founder and CEO of Our Road to Thrive, an online platform that helps families who have children with ADHD manage the symptoms naturally. She has spent over a decade researching the role that nutrition plays in children who have ADHD and other behavioral disorders and has seen firsthand how a change in diet can produce dramatic results.

When Kay’s son was five years old, he was diagnosed with ADHD. She had always known that her son had abnormal amounts of energy compared to other children his age, so the diagnosis was a relief for her because it validated her concerns. A pediatrician immediately prescribed Kay’s son medication, and Kay was hopeful that it would help her son to calm his body and mind.

“For a while, things seemed to be going well,” Kay says. “He was calm, could focus better at school, and started playing nicer with his younger brother. Unfortunately, this peacefulness didn’t last long. He became quieter, more anxious, didn’t want to eat during the day, and had trouble sleeping at night. The afternoons became very difficult because he would have these huge meltdowns. It was as if the medication wore off and all of this pent-up energy was being released like a volcanic eruption.”

Kay realized that medicine was not the answer, and so she set out to learn everything she could about alternative treatments for ADHD. It wasn’t until she implemented a complete dietary overhaul that she began to see significant results. This revelation led her to switch career paths and obtain the formal education and certifications she needed to better help others in the same situation as her. 

One of the things that helped the most for Kay and her son was cutting out inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy, and soy. Kay also cut out foods high in sugar and additives and began incorporating more whole grains, healthy proteins, and vegetables into meals. Her son has now been off medication for years and is flourishing.

“There is a huge connection between our gut health and brain health,” Kay says. “Most of the serotonin and half of the dopamine in our bodies are made in our guts. We need these neurotransmitters to help balance and maintain our moods and manage our emotions. Children with ADHD particularly struggle with this. So why is medication the first line of defense?”

The pressure to perform

Kay believes that one of the major reasons that more parents are now seeking ADHD medications for their children is because they are under pressure for their children to perform better in school and be ‘normal’. In addition, she also believes that parents themselves may be feeling pressure and simply don’t have the funds or support to explore other options.

She says, “I think ADHD is being overdiagnosed because parents need their kids to focus on school, and they need their kids to be able to fit into this normal box. And both mothers and fathers these days also need to perform. They need to work and provide for their families. How do you balance all of that when you have a child with behavioral issues?”

Kay understands that many families may feel alone and isolated when it comes to managing children who don’t seem to fit into the usual molds, so any help can seem like a blessing. She says, “When a doctor prescribes some pills, whether it’s for ADHD, anxiety, depression, or another medical condition, often people will just say, ‘OK, if that’s what you’re telling me to do, I’ll do it.’ What they don’t know is there may be other answers.”

Moving away from medication

The ADHD Thrive Method 4 Kids is Kay’s signature 12-week program that helps parents of children with ADHD and other behavioral issues identify triggers and implement holistic methods to reduce and manage symptoms. Throughout the program, Kay and her team of experts walk families through a series of actionable steps that are designed to be easy to implement and cut back on the overwhelm that so often comes with making life changes.

When working with families, the first thing Kay brings up is food. “I recently had a mother apply who told me that three or four times a week she would bring her son to McDonald’s for breakfast and Burger King for dinner,” Kay says. “I get it. She’s a single mom, so I don’t blame her. But then her kid is diagnosed with ADHD, and I have to wonder if the real reason he’s aggressive is because his body and brain aren’t getting the nutrients they need to function properly.”

The ADHD Thrive Method 4 Kids focuses mainly on food and provides families with a complete roadmap for making positive dietary changes that can benefit the whole family. This includes a list of foods to eliminate, recipes, grocery shopping lists, and tactics for dealing with picky eaters or school lunches. For families who want to go deeper, the team can also include functional lab testing to identify potential chronic health issues that could also be affecting behavior. 

“Many times a change in diet is all it takes,” says Kay. “In fact, over half of the kids that go through our food program don’t need functional lab testing because simply reducing inflammation in the body and changing the diet reduces symptoms so much that they don’t need to go further. And that tells me that there is a good chance that maybe they didn’t have ADHD in the first place.”

Photo Credits: Dana Kay

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