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Diet for ADHD Children: A Parent's Guide

— Center for Science in the Public Interest
Updated on Feb 15, 2011

*This pamphlet is adapted from Diet, ADHD & Behavior, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. That report is available from CSPI or its Internet site (www.cspinet.org).

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common behavioral problems in children. It not only bedevils children, but also affects their siblings and parents. It can be treated, but not cured. A key question for parents is how to treat their children.

ADHD—also called hyperactivity or attention-deficit disorder—has been diagnosed in millions of American children and adults. The main symptoms in children are reduced attentiveness and concentration, excessive levels of activity, distractibility, and impulsiveness. Before concluding that your child has ADHD, consult a doctor or psychologist who is qualified to make the diagnosis. Many children whose parents think they have ADHD are merely very active or spirited. Besides ADHD, some children exhibit other types and degrees of inappropriate behavior.

Exactly how many children suffer from ADHD is not known. The usual estimates are 3 to 5 percent of school-age children. Using broader diagnostic definitions, some surveys find that the percentage is as high as 20 percent in certain subgroups of the population. ADHD is two or three times more common in boys than in girls. On average, at least one child in every classroom in the United States needs help for ADHD.

Researchers generally agree that ADHD has genetic roots. Thus, if one child has the syndrome, his or her siblings have a greater risk of developing it. Because doctors cannot yet diagnose ADHD by using blood analyses, brain scans, or other laboratory tests, ADHD is usually diagnosed by observing a child’s behavior, interviewing parents and teachers, and by using a checklist of behaviors, such as those included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)-IV published by the American Psychiatric Association. (See box on next page.) Researchers are working hard to develop more reliable diagnostic tools and have found subtle differences in brain structure and metabolism between children with and without ADHD.

ADHD takes an enormous toll on children and their families. The child falls behind in school, loses self-esteem, and needs extra help. A family must cope daily with the need to focus the child’s attention on essential activities or restrain his or her impulsive behavior, while dealing with the unsettling fact that the child is not always welcome in other people’s homes, in play groups, or on teams. Siblings may suffer because their needs are not as acute, and many marriages suffer from the constant stress of dealing with an affected child.

Signposts of ADHD

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes three patterns of behavior that indicate ADHD. People with ADHD may show several signs of being consistently inattentive. They may have a pattern of being hyperactive and impulsive. Or they may show all three types of behavior.

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