Approximately 5 million children in 2010 were diagnosed with ADHD  according to the Centers for Disease Control.  It’s a shocking statistic that may have some parents of ADHD kids wondering “is this what I signed up for?” (which is certainly what I thought a time or two with Emma’s celiac diagnosis too).  Now the lead researcher in the study published in Lancet, says ADHD isn’t a disease — but rather a group of symptoms triggered by the environment — primarliy food.  Could it be that simple?  Change the diet and maybe lose the drugs?

The new research, reported by National Public Radio, suggests diet could be causing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  I’ll be right up front about this — the article doesn’t mention gluten once as a cause.  In fact the article does little to guide parents in any sort of direction as to what kinds of food may cause this.  And THAT is why I’m discussing this today.  To let parents know gluten or casein (a protein in milk) may have something to do with it and it could be a place to start.

“Hypersensitivity to Food”

In the NPR article the study’s lead author Dr. Lidy Pelsser said,

“64 percent of children diagnosed with ADHD are actually experiencing a hypersensitivity to food. Researchers determined that by starting kids on a very elaborate diet, then restricting it over a few weeks’ time.”

“Hypersensitivity to food” that’s vague.

It doesn’t go into much detail on how to figure out which foods are the culprits only that it’s done by the process of elimination and that a doctor trained specifically  in this area should oversee the process.

So what could it be in your pantry, refrigerator or cupboards that might be causing this issue?  Where do you begin???  One possibility is gluten or casein.

What’s Gluten (or Casein) Got to Do With ADHD?

While there is limited scientific research available on this subject — there is some….

In a Norwegian study in the late 90’s doctors  put 22 ADHD children on a strict milk-free and/or gluten-free diet(s). reported in 2009,

“They were taken off milk products and other foods containing casein. All exhibited a rapid improvement in general well-being, including improved mental health and general behavior, improved attention-span and better learning abilities. After a year, the families reported clear improvements in their child’s behaviour and attention-span.  When the kids were taken off their diets, their symptoms returned nearly immediately. Before changing their diets, most of the children were taking medications, like Ritalin, to treat their symptoms. After their diets were established, their medications were discontinued.” –, 2009

Dr. Vikki Peterson discussed it in an article last January.  She wrote about a recent talk that Dr. Peter Green (renowned doctor treating celiac disease and gluten sensitivities at Columbia University) had about this issue.

“I’ve been interested in gluten sensitivity as it relates to psychiatric and neurological problems, [Dr. Green said]. There’s a high rate of anti-gliadin antibodies in schizophrenia, depression and ADHD. Much higher than in the general population.’ (Recall that anti-gliadin antibodies are a gluten sensitivity lab test,)” wrote Dr. Peterson. Dr. Green did note in his talk that these folks didn’t have celiac antibodies– just the ones for gluten sensitivity.


To be honest, gluten or casein very well may not be the culprits. In fact, the Mayo Clinic has responded to the question about other food additives that may cause ADHD. Even staying away from processed foods could help.  But I wanted to write this article for a parent who’s scouring the internet right now seeing this very study on food and thinking to themselves, “Now what?”.

I want to add the food study also mentioned there is a portion of ADHD kids who will still need medication, but Dr. Pelsser recommends starting with looking at food first, “….now we are giving them all drugs, and I think that’s a huge mistake,” Dr. Pelsser told NPR.

*Source note:  NPR states on its website there will be audio from this interview available after 7 p.m. EST on Saturday March 12th, 2011.  Check the link again later to hear more details on this study.

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18 Responses to “Research: Is Food the Culprit in ADHD?”

  1. Not a Medieval Peasant
    March 12th, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    I think this is ridiculous.

    I’ve got ADHD (and let me tell you, growing up untreated was incredibly harmful, way more harmful than if I’d just had the proper medication I have now) and I also have Celiac Disease. Not once during the three years I was doing food sensitivity tests, or when I was finally diagnosed with Celiac Disease and stopped eating gluten, did my ADHD symptoms ever go away. And no amount of exercise, diet, or meditation ever came close to helping my brain settle down and focus the way the right dose of stimulants does.

  2. Thanks for your input.
    As I mentioned in the article and the research itself mentioned, some people still do need medication.
    You are right, people shouldn’t necessarily hang their hat on food sensitivities as a cure-all. But its another bit of information that could help some folks.

  3. I FULLY believe that food has a lot to do with some of the kids behavior! My son had a lot of Aspergers syndrome symptoms. My chiropractor suggested a blood test to see if he was sensitive to any foods and gluten wheat and cow’s milk were on there. He is almost 7 and for the past 6 years, we have tried almost everything to help him with his “issues.” A gluten/wheat free diet has been a life saver for him…and us! It has been six weeks now where he has been completely gluten free and he is a new kid! All of his issues are now almost gone, and if they do show their face, it is minimal and doesn’t last but a minute or so! Amazing. I am truly thankful to my Chiropractor who suggested to look into diet. I encourage anyone who is experiencing a child with problems, to at least try it. What can it hurt?

  4. Over the summer we went gluten free with our 5 yr old and saw a dramatic improvement in his behavior. When he hasn’t been “glutenized” he is focused, kind, and easy to be around. But if he gets a hold of something with gluten he becomes almost manic, impossible to settle down, and often has fits of rage. My husband was a skeptic at first, but now he is the first one to make sure something is gluten free. The difference is that obvious for us.

  5. diet was absolutely the case for my son Troy. He is on a gluten free casein free diet and it has changed his life. I have my blog website for anyone to read. We also give him about 5 different vitamins a day. I believe both are working for him but the diet was really the key.

  6. should a child be put on a gluten-free diet,before he or she has seen a doctor? and been told he or she has adhd. i had a daughter with adhd and the doctor never told me to put her on a gluten free diet. do you have info that could be sent to me. thank you. respectfully,cathy

  7. No your child should not be gluten free before being seen and tested for celiac. That is one major problem with diagnosis…people go gluten free first, then they get tested for celiac and it comes back negative. The best time to test for celiac is when you’re still eating gluten.

  8. I have Celiac and my two sons are gluten intolerant. My younger son also has ADHD. I just wanted to add something to the above post regarding testing for Celiac. Testing can come back negative for Celiac but someone can still be gluten intolerant and have health and behavioral symptoms. One of the best ways to find out if you have an issue with gluten is to take it completely out of your diet and see if you notice a difference. Thank you for this informative post!

  9. I have been a whole food advocate for years eating mostly vegan and 60% or more raw. My son has never been tested for Celiac disease. I will have to look this up and ask the Dr. about running a test. My son has ADHD and we have had so many problems for years. When we switched ALL food, soaps, products including childrens medicine from our cabinets to a whole food, tincture, organic, local vege lifestyle he improved and finally began to talk @ age 3. He now excels in that dept. LOL. However, it didn’t change his behavior. Six years later I am STILL dealing with issues now at school and at home. I realize so many people out there think that just changing a diet will be like night and day and the person will be normal. God knows I wish that was my son. Our entire family has changed they way we eat and buy everything. My son is getting worse. For my son, it’s time to get medication. I tried for SIX years to do everything I know how with food elimination, holistic doctors, organic foods, no dairy, no processed foods, no dyes, etc. Just isn’t working. I have not tried no gluten though. I am very sad as I do not want to put my son on medication but the school system is threatening to kick him out. I gotta try something. He keeps falling behind. Even with IEPs and teachers helping him he is getting lost in the shuffle…no more! Help!

  10. Get a Pubmed Subscription
    October 1st, 2012 at 1:49 am

    1. Seriously Annesa, chiropractors are not in any way qualified to offer advice to you on diet, much less on neuroscience. You would do just as well to ask a physiotherapist, or a plumber for that matter.

    2. The answer to your question about whether switching to a gluten free diet can hurt is yes, Annesa. Gluten free breads and cereals are typically not fortified with beneficial vitamins for kids and adults, as are normal breads and cereals. More importantly, gluten free foods are comparatively very calorie-dense.

    3. There are no credible (i.e. statistically significant, evidence-based) studies demonstrating a causal link between ADHD and diet, much less between ADHD and a gluten free diet. There are a couple of studies (albeit based upon very small sample sizes) suggesting that there may be a statistically significant correlation between ADHD and Celiac disease – but no causation is attributed.

    4. Instead of scouring the Internet for the answers you seek, I’d recommend purchasing a subscription to the pubmed database. It’s the best repository for scientific/academic work, and is therefore infinitely better than the flotsam and jetsam you’ll find when consulting Dr. Google.

    5. PS – I have both ADHD and Celiac. I’m in my mid-40’s. My doctorate is in law rather than any one of the natural sciences. I was diagnosed as ADHD 4 years ago. I was diagnosed as Celiac 2 years ago. My ADHD symptoms did not improve one whit when I went gluten free. I can confirm, however, that I suffer from a combination of indigestion, rhinitis and rash whenever I encounter the slightest gluten contamination.

  11. This discussion proves what everyone that has someone who has Aspergers , ADHD, or other issues knows- there is no definite answer. I do believe you have to investigate all options because what works beautifully for one person has no effect on the other. I have two children with Aspergers and ADHD . I have tried Nordic naturals Omegas and daily vitamins and have had great results as well as other alternative treatments. I am looking into GFCF diet . I am just so glad we are at a place in time when we can learn and discuss so much with others sharing the same challenges.

  12. Tonya,
    What an involved, great mom you are!
    My younger DD is 4 years old and recently (finally) diagnosed with ADHD. Severe tantrums and zero impulse control, coupled with the inability to just sit for 5 seconds to do anything. I finally realized that a brain chemical imbalance should be treated the same way as a chemical imbalance anywhere else in the body. I explained it to her by saying just like one of our cats needs medicine every day (he has hyperthyroidism) to help him be healthy, she gets Ritalin 2x a day to help her be healthy. It has made a world of difference for us.

    Our kids are good kids, their behavior isn’t due to a choice they make, it is due to a brain chemistry out of whack that can be helped by the right medication.

    I think we as parents are so afraid of the ADHD and Ritalin labels, because people who have never dealt with this have so many opinions about us just being bad parents.

    Good luck, you’re not alone 🙂

  13. Michelle and Hughes
    November 10th, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    Just had my 8YR old son Zyto read..starting a gluten free diet..plz email me any additional info and new updates! Thanks for sharing!!!!

  14. My 8 yr old son was diagnosed with Aspergers, ADHD & ODD. This week I removed gluten from his diet. The difference was nearly immediate. I saw a definite change in 2 days. Today was his best day at school he has ever had. So good that his teacher made it a point to tell me. He was attentive, participated, was more social. I am very active at his school and for the first time today I witnessed him invite another child to sit with him at lunch- sounds minor, but for an Aspie kid, this is HUGE! He played with another child during recess- also never seen before. Often he has sensory issues with loud sounds- today he had no issues whatsoever. He had no aggression or verbal outbursts. At dinner this evening he sat the entire time during dinner and ate his entire meal. Normally I have to tell him to return to his seat at least 5 times during a meal. In the evenings before bed he is normally bouncing around like a jumping bean. Tonight he sat still and watched a cartoon. The change is AMAZING! So much so that I am afraid to even believe it. I will most definitely continue the gluten free diet. I think this may be life-changing for our family. Crossing my fingers it continues for the positive!

  15. Thanks for sharing. I’ve eliminated dairy from my 3-year old son’s diet a year ago and within a week he started talking. And there was great improvement to his behaviour and he’s no longer agitated all the time. But his hyper-activeness persists and looses focus easily. Recently he started to have this runny nose and cough which do not go away despite of medications. I did a reflection on his diet and realised he has been eating a lot of bread, gluten! I’m going to take gluten out of his diet to see if it helps. And I really hope it will, if not, he wld be put on Ritalin when he’s five.

  16. Our son is 5 and was diagnosed with ADHD at 4yrs.
    We were told it was one if the worst Cases they had seen! Over
    The next year we tried 4 Different medications, kepy a food diary and although they helped a little our son was still a mess. Then one day I had a phone convo with the school nurse, her daughter had ADHD and had gone gluten free. After hearing her story I knew we had to try it. 5 days in our son is like a totally changed person. He is still on his meds but he is so much more manageable! Before it was like living with a wild animal! I can’t believe the change. The only regret I have is that someone didn’t tell me about going gluten free earlier!

  17. Hello,

    I know this is a late response, but I just came across this post.

    Please know that if you are going to make such definitive statements, you really should do some primary reporting, not simply rely on what you understood “NPR” (which show? which reporter? where is the link?) to say.

    Also please know that the responsibility lies with you to research these claims further. Did you look for other news articles? Did you see what other experts thought of this study?

    One study does not science make.

    For a more balanced report on this topic, please read this from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine:

    including this excerpt:

    Michael Daines, MD, a pediatric allergist and immunologist at the University of Arizona, called the study “interesting, but flawed,” pointing to the lack of blinding in the study groups, which would potentially affect all of the data.

    Also wary of the findings was William Pelham, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Buffalo, who cited studies conducted over the past 30 years that have failed to support a consistent relationship between dietary manipulations and ADHD symptoms.

    “One open study allegedly demonstrating a relationship does not change my mind,” he wrote in an e-mail.

    There is reason to believe that children and adults with ADHD are more immunologically sensitive to certain foods and allergens, but that could be the ADHD neurobiology itself, not the foods.

    The average American child’s diet seems overweighted, in my opinion, in macaroni and cheese, pizza, toast, and cereal. This isn’t good for any child. ADHD or not.

    Gina Pera

  18. My son(now 7) displayed a lot of behaviour similar to ADHD when he was 3-4 years old, even though he wasn’t diagnosed as such at the time. (They currently think he might have aspergers and ADHD but just waiting for confirmation). I knew that his poor behaviour escalated after lunch time at pre school and after birthday parties and had food intolerance checks made. Biggest one was sugar beet, which I’d never heard of as being a food intolerance before, along with aspartame, saccharin and all the other diet sugars, strawberries, certain food colourings, caffeine (which he never had anyway) and prawns. These foods were cut out overnight and the following day, we received an all clear from the school, with much more acceptable (not perfect) behaviour and no complete outbursts and so it continued for four months. The only time it changed, they realised that they had used beet sugar and not cane sugar (OK) in a lunch time dessert. He had had an outburst within 3 hours of eating it. So yes, I do think that diet has a major influence on behaviour.

    Interestingly, four months after the initial change in diet, there was an article in the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, about a study on children with ADHD. Again, a no of food intolerances came into play, the largest being sugar beet (the main sugar crop grown in the UK). These were removed from the diet and all the children in the study had reduced ratings on the Conners Scale for ADHD, with some coming below the threshold for being called ADHD. Surprised? Not so much because I’d seen the difference with my son.

    At the end of the day, if we all go back to eating basic foods, without all the processed junk that is pushed onto us, we will get a much rounder diet and benefit all round, adhd or not. My guess is that there is something in some of these processed foods that has a neurological affect on people, and people with ADHD are probably more susceptible to them than others. As a result, I will continue to avoid these foods. I may well try the gluten free diet for a while (for the whole family) and see if there is any change in behaviour too.

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