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Food Matters: Giving Young People with ADHD a Healthy Foundation for Success

By Meghan Vivo

Certain learning and behavioral issues, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), have been linked to nutritional problems and food allergies. Although a change in diet alone probably will not eliminate hyperactive or impulsive behaviors, and the association between the two remains controversial, there is some research to support the assertion that a diet low in sugar, junk food, and additives can benefit children with ADHD. 

One British study, published in The Lancet, showed an increase in hyperactivity among children without ADHD who were fed a diet high in food colorings and the preservative sodium benzoate (a preservative commonly used in soft drinks). In response to this study,  pediatrics professor Andrew Kemp, MD, of the University of Sydney, and other experts have called for a diet free of food additives to be a standard part of treatment for kids with attention deficit disorder. Kemp also noted that of 22 studies conducted between 1975 and 1994, 16 found dietary modification to have a positive impact on at least some children with ADHD

In its report titled “ADHD and Food Additives Revisited,” the American Academy of Pediatrics also noted that food additives and/or sodium benzoate may increase hyperactive behavior in children. Experts agree that dietary modification doesn’t work for every child, but it is often worth trying, particularly in combination with other treatment approaches. 

Programs for Children with ADHD 

At Stone Mountain School in North Carolina, a therapeutic boarding school for boys ages 11-17 who are struggling with ADD, ADHD, nonverbal learning disorders (NLD), and other learning and behavioral issues, a healthy diet is considered an important building block for success. 

The school’s “queen of the kitchen,” Jodi Davis, is an expert at cooking healthy meals that appeal to children. Because many of the students at Stone Mountain have been diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, or other learning differences, Jodi’s approach integrates wholesome, organic ingredients, and real, unadulterated food that contains the least amount of pesticides and chemicals possible. 

“Variety is what keeps our students interested in healthy food,” says Jodi. “They’re kids and they’ll always love hamburgers, pizza, and spaghetti, but we find ways to squeeze healthy ingredients into these traditional favorites.” For a taste of something new, Jodi may purchase fresh figs, organic rice, or honey from the farm down the road, and works to expose the students to as many new fruits, vegetables, and nutritious foods as possible. 

Jodi believes that everyone, especially teens with ADHD, must be mindful of what we put in our bodies. “We’re not just eating to fill our bellies,” she says. “Just as doctors prescribe medications to these kids to help with their diagnosis, I believe food is medicine for their bodies.” 

When experimenting with new recipes, Jodi is particularly careful about additives, colorings, and sugar, offering treats like pumpkin cookies that balance taste with nutrition. The Stone Mountain kitchen staff caters to special dietary needs and is able to work around student allergies and other nutritional requirements. 

Students at Stone Mountain even have a say in the foods they eat. The staff encourages students to provide lists of foods they’d like to have, and the boys can join the school’s student council to make further recommendations for their diet, activities, and other special interests. 

In order to provide the students with skills they can use at home, Jodi conducts a cooking class with each group of boys and helps them get comfortable in the kitchen. “I want the boys to know what certain foods look like, and to make the connection to how food affects the way they feel,” she says. 

Part of a Well-Balanced Treatment Approach 

Of course, a wholesome diet is just one component of Stone Mountain’s “combined approach,” according to Susan Hardy, the executive director at the boarding school for boys. “We know that young people with learning differences thrive in environments that combine counseling, structure, small classrooms and individualized academic support, green time, a healthy diet, exercise, medication, and family support. In isolation, these components make minimal differences, but when systematically and holistically integrated like pieces of a puzzle, this approach ensures that every opportunity and resource is available is to our students.”



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