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“How Cleaner Eating Helped My Son with ADHD”

Eat, drink, and love the effects that organic foods may have on your child — at least for a while.

I remember two years ago when the doctor told me Lucas had more than enough symptoms to confidently give him an ADHD diagnosis, and how the doctor asked me if I would like him to prescribe medication. I was, “Huh? I thought you were supposed to tell me what to do!” I felt like I was slapping the doctor in the face when I hesitantly asked him if there was anything else we could try before resorting to medication (the medical community is generally in favor of medicating for ADHD). “Organic food has helped many of my patients,” he said.

Really? Why had I never read or heard that before? In the hundreds of hours of research I’d done, I’d heard of Feingold, gluten sensitivity, and food-coloring sensitivity, but I hadn’t read anything that said organic eating might affect ADHD symptoms. But I do trust my doctor, and I was willing to try anything.

So that afternoon, we went to the grocery store and spent two hours (lots of label-reading) and $200 on organic food shopping. Lucas was suspicious at first (does organic = yucky?), but I explained to him why we were changing the way we eat, about how there are pesticides in food and that we were trying to live a more chemical-free lifestyle to help make behaving and thinking clearly easier for him. I told him it might take a few weeks, or maybe even months, but we were going to do whatever it took to help him. He became a willing, if skeptical, participant.

We ate an organic meal that night. And either because of my awesome powers of mind control and psychological manipulation, or because it was actually true, Lucas said the organic food tasted better. The next morning I fed Lucas organic cereal with organic milk, an organic packed lunch for school, and organic dinner.

The following morning, after a day and a half of organic eating, Lucas was ready for school 10 minutes early. If you have a kid with ADHD, you know why the Hallelujah Chorus just erupted in the background. If you don’t have a kid with ADHD, you have to understand what the typical morning in our house used to look like. I broke down Lucas’ morning into little tasks and set a timer for each tiny job. Putting on underwear, shirt, pants, belt, socks, shoes — all these seemingly simple jobs were separated. I yelled at him to get moving, took (or threw) away toys as punishment for being off task, and, in the final countdown of seconds to get out the door, I sometimes grabbed his mouth and swished a toothbrush around in there just to get those damn teeth brushed already. That was because he had wasted 10 minutes singing in front of the mirror, or maybe stared at himself and hummed quietly like the creepy kid from the horror movie does right before the mom gets the ax.

[Free Download: What to Eat (and Avoid) for Improved ADHD Symptoms]

I set the alarm clock earlier and earlier. Still, somehow we always ended up racing around in a frenzy in those last few minutes. On a daily basis, I bit back tears as I herded the kids out the door a few minutes late, where the neighbors’ kids would wait patiently for me to take them to school, sometimes asking innocently, “How come you’re always yelling at Lucas?” because they had heard me screaming at him from inside the house. Which would make me try even harder not to cry, and then I would make stupid nervous-sounding small talk in the car with Lucas on the way to school, saying “I love you” about a billion times in a guilty attempt to reassure him of my undying love for him.

Mornings. Were. Horrible.

So being ready 10 minutes early after one day of organic eating pretty much blew my hair off my head. It was a miracle.

Lucas had a great day at school that day. The following week, after gymnastics, his instructor came running out to find me, eyes round with excitement. “Are you Lucas’s mom? What have you been doing? He was a different kid today! I have never seen him so focused!”

It seemed that we had found the “cure” for ADHD: Just eat properly. Feelings of self-righteousness crept in. My husband and I started having those kinds of conversations, the ones that go something like this:

“What is wrong with the food system here in the United States?”

“The entire system needs a major overhaul.”

[If Your Mornings Are Hell, Read This]

“I can’t believe we’ve been putting poisonous, carcinogenic chemicals into our children’s bodies all this time.”

“I can’t believe people just give their kids whatever crap they find on the grocery store shelf without reading the labels or understanding where the food came from.”

“This is why everyone has ADHD. It’s because of the food.”

“Yeah, and cancer, too. And diabetes. And every other health problem.”

“Yeah, it’s all because we eat a bunch of crap.”

“Yeah.”

I did my little victory dance up there on my high horse, even as a knowledgeable friend warned me that the positive effects of the organic food could be a result of the sudden and drastic change, and that I shouldn’t be surprised or discouraged if the effects weren’t long-lasting or didn’t sustain the initial level of intensity.

I couldn’t stomach her negativity, though. I needed a win. But, unfortunately, my friend was right. As time has slipped by over this past year, we’ve lost some of the “miracle effect” of organic eating. We still eat primarily organic though, and I have noticed that if we go off organic for more than a few days, Lucas starts scaling the walls like Spiderman on crack.

We still aren’t ruling out medication, but Lucas is doing well enough in school that we feel we can hold off for a while. So, for now, we’re sticking with our not-so-miraculous-but-definitely-worthwhile solution of eating organic food.

Now, if only eating organic was a sure-fire way to prevent mamma from losing her mind on a busy morning.

[The Sugar Wars: How Food Impacts ADHD Symptoms]

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  1. Please stop with the “clean eating” articles. Eating is not clean vs. dirty. First of all, one can’t go “chemical free.” Even “natural” things are 100% made of chemicals. Your body sees molecules and doesn’t care where they come from. An organic sucrose molecule is exactly the same as a regular one. There is no nutritional benefit to organic food. Organic farming is allowed to use pesticides and herbicides, many of which are more toxic than those used in conventional farming and which have to be applied more often (e.g., copper sulfate).

    Two hundred dollars on organic food? Do you see the privilege problem here? Parents, do not feel bad for not spending a ridiculous amount on food. Conventional produce is fine, and as a bonus you can afford to feed your family more fruits and vegetables. There is no scientific evidence to support organic food, clean eating, a paleo diet, or any other fad diet to eliminate or reduce ADHD symptoms.

    Yes, limit sugar. Yes, try your best to maximize the fruits and veg your child eats. The boring truth is that these two things (plus exercise) are the most effective, scientifically proven things you can do for your health. But don’t stress over organic and avoiding “chemicals.” You have more important things to do with your time and money.

  2. Like every parent of a child with ADD I’m always looking for the silver bullet. But parents and medical professionals know it’s not that easy. I’m happy for anyone who is able to improve their ADD symptoms through a change of diet, but I wonder if it’s unhelpful to present this in such a way.

    I’ve been feeding my kids organic food since infancy. I made my own baby food by pureeing fruits and veggies we got from the Farmer’s Market. We still subscribe to an organic farm that provides a box of veggies each week all summer and fall, we drink organic milk, and when we eat meat, it’s organic. We’re fortunate to have access to surprisingly affordable organic foods and we stretch the grocery budget by avoiding the processed foods that cost so much more.

    None of that has made a single bit of difference. My son was still diagnosed with ADD in second grade. And while I would have loved to experiment with alternatives to medication, his inability to focus in school and to keep up with what was happening in the classroom had led to severe anxiety and depression. Being on ADD meds has its ups and downs, and it’s not perfect, but by treating his medical condition, he’s able to fully participate at school, and so the anxiety and depression are gone.

    Before the diagnosis, so many parents had shared with me their own experiences of children with ADD, which led me to be open to medication when my son received his diagnosis. I’m grateful for that, as it opened us to make a hard but necessary decision. Parents seeking to make tough calls on their children’s behalf need to know that there is so silver bullet for ADD, and an article that implies that “fixing” your child’s ADD may be as simple as changing their diet is unhelpful. If you do choose to share these kinds of stories, perhaps balance them with stories of all the other children for whom change of diet has no impact.

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