In some remote recess of our brains, we all possess a secret knowledge of our own physical and emotional reactions to specific foods, drinks, and food-based chemicals.  We know exactly how we react to, say, red meat or red dye, to milk or mayonnaise, to sugar or salt.  We know the huge difference in our physical reaction to a Twinkie, or a chocolate bar, or a slice of whole grain bread.  In fact, the ice cream vendors, who count on such knowledge, know that you won’t be reaching for a bowl of brown rice the next time you feel blue. 

Our secret knowledge goes far beyond the obvious to the more subtle effects of foods.  We know, for example, that boiled broccoli affects us very differently from boiled potatoes.   And we know with absolute precision the vast differences between broccoli and, say, M&Ms on the body, mind, and nervous system. 

Yes, even the most out-of-touch among us can acknowledge – if we’re being honest – that the effect of each individual food has a profound and vastly different effect on our internal chemistry.

Which is why I am baffled, to say the least, whenever I hear or read that so many doctors, health authorities, and parents argue that foods, drinks, and food-based chemicals are in no way affecting the behavior of their children, and that food has nothing to do with the epidemic of attention deficit and hyperactive disorder (ADHD) affecting children today. 

ADHD: Driving Children Into Chaos

ADHD is characterized by the inability to concentrate, focus, or pay attention to a given subject for more than a few seconds or a few minutes.  Consequently, children with ADHD are usually unable to complete tasks and assignments.  They become bored quickly and daydream for long periods of time.  They are often restless, cannot sit still, and oftentimes need to touch someone or something.  Many kids with ADHD need to constantly be in motion.   They blurt out inappropriate remarks and sometimes engage in behaviors that lead to conflicts and even physical violence.   

The incidence of ADHD is skyrocketing around the world.  The numbers are often sketchy and vague.  Also reporting the incidences of the condition may be low.   In the U.S., between three and five percent of children suffer from ADHD, and that percentage is rising steadily.  The medical establishment has responded with a drug approach, most commonly Ritalin.  Sales for Ritalin have risen five-fold since 1990.   Ritalin is associated with an increased risk of depression and even suicide in children.  Laboratory animals treated with Ritalin suffer from an increased incidence of liver cancer. 

Even more powerful drugs are now being used to control children’s behavior, all of them with significant side effects.  

The Worst Diet In Human Existence

It’s no coincidence that ADHD is rising at a time when children living in the modern world eat the worst diet ever consumed in human history.  No population has ever consumed so much sugar, soda pop, artificial ingredients, and processed foods as are eaten today.    

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average American’s sugar and sweetener consumption rose from 119 pounds per year in 1970, to 142 pounds per year in 2003, the last year for which there are statistics.

That average American drinks at least two soft drinks per day, which translates into 48 gallons a year, according to the scientists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C., a consumer advocacy group.

But as you know, many adults limit their sugar intake and avoid soft drinks altogether, which means that these numbers do not accurately describe what individuals are doing.  For the many adults and children are addicted to soft drinks, the average consumption is closer to four, five, or six soft drinks a day, which means that the more accurate annual consumption is between 100 and 150 gallons a year. 

Soft drinks are essentially liquid candy.  The average 12-ounce bottle or can of soda – such as Coca Cola, 7-Up, Sprite, Mountain Dew, or Dr. Pepper – contains 10 teaspoons of pure sugar (approximately 40 grams) and 160 calories.  McDonalds large Coke contains 310 calories, all of them empty of nutrition. 

Weight And ADHD

One of the effects of all that sugar and empty calories is to cause weight gain, especially among children. 

In the U.S. today, fully two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and more than a third is obese.   A third of American children are overweight and 17 percent of kids between the ages of 6 and 15 are obese.   Similar numbers are occurring worldwide.   

The World Health Organization reported that more than 1 billion people around the world are overweight, while 300 million of them are now obese.   Here’s a startling fact:  There are more overweight people in the world today than there are undernourished people worldwide.  (The most recent count of people dying from malnutrition and undernutrition is 600 million.) 

All this sugar, excess calories, and overweight are combining to drive blood sugar and insulin levels through the roof.  These high glucose and insulin levels are themselves causing a plethora of illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and many illnesses affecting the mind, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. 

In fact, the greater our body weight, the more likely we are to have ADHD.  British researchers, writing in the medical journal BMC Psychiatry (September 13, 2002), found ADHD was “highly prevalent” among people suffering from obesity, and that ADHD was “highest in those with extreme obesity.”  ADHD makes it extremely difficult to adhere to a weight loss program for any length of time, the researchers stated.   

Ben Feingold: Visionary Doctor Who Saw The Pattern Early

Back in the 1970s, an American medical doctor by the name of Ben Feingold looked at the changing modern diet and realized that it was wreaking havoc in the lives of children.   After much observation, Feingold theorized that sensitive children experience changes in behavior after eating sugar, milk products, artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives.   Over time, he added wheat products and corn to the list.   Dr. Feingold, who practiced in California, developed what became known as the Feingold diet.  Thousands of parents of hyperactive children adopted the diet and reported dramatic improvements in the behavior of their children, including their ability to concentrate, study, and learn.   The diet became so successful among parents that whole communities and support groups sprang up around the country.   Parents were adamant that their children underwent dramatic, negative changes whenever they ate the offending foods, but when they were kept off these foods, they experienced significant improvement in all their symptoms.  Many parents and children said that they experienced a complete cessation of all ADHD symptoms after adopting the Feingold diet. 

To this day, many doctors dismiss these claims and say that food has nothing to do with ADHD.  Doctors routinely tell parents that there is no scientific evidence to support the Feingold diet, but that is far from true. 

So far, there have been 23 scientific studies examining the relationship between specific foods, food-based chemicals, and ADHD.  Of those 23 studies, 17 have shown a clear relationship between foods and food substances and ADHD, according to a review of the evidence done by Center for Science in the Public Interest. 

Dr. Eugene Arnold, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Ohio State University, told the editors of Nutrition Action Newsletter, a publication of CSPI, that, “Some of these studies demonstrated significant improvement in the behavior of children when their diets were changed, or deterioration in their behavior when they were given food dyes or other offending foods.”   

Why are these studies kept so quiet – indeed, even hidden?  Because the food industry, and many abetting doctors, would rather tell parents that there is a pill to treat ADHD than to try to change the family eating patterns. 

Yet, some doctors urge parents to think twice before giving their children a powerful drug.  “It makes a lot more sense to try modifying a child’s diet before treating him or her with a stimulant drug,” Dr. Marvin Boris, a New York pediatrician told CSPI. 

Parents have long stated that the Feingold diet saved their children’s academic lives, not to mention their self-esteem and the success those children will experience in life as a result of their ability to study and learn. 

Now, new research is showing that the very foods and substances that Feingold identified are, in fact, causing changes in brain chemistry that can form the basis for ADHD and other serious disorders. 

Food And Brain Chemistry: Clarity Or Chaos

As scientists learn more about the effects of high insulin on the nervous system and particularly the brain, they are coming to understand how diet can lead to a wide array of neurological problems, including ADHD. 

The high levels of artificial chemicals and sugar in processed foods can trigger two processes that can change the way our brains function.  The first is to cause insulin resistance, or the inability of cells to accept insulin and blood sugar, or fuel.  The second is to trigger inflammation in the brain. 

It’s true that this is not an automatic response.  We must eat more processed food and sugar than our bodies can handle.  But the epidemic of overweight, diabetes, and ADHD among children suggests that we have, indeed, crossed a certain threshold and that the very changes scientists now worry about are occurring in hundreds of thousands of children today. 

One of the world’s leading experts on insulin resistance, diabetes, and nutrition is Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D., bestselling author and chief executive officer of Metagenics, Inc., and the Functional Medicine Research Center in Gig Harbor, Washington. 

In our book, Freedom From Disease, which I wrote with Peter Kash and Jay Lombard, D.O., Dr. Bland told me there is emerging evidence that high insulin, and insulin resistance, triggers changes in the central nervous system that lead to an immune reaction within the brain.  That immune reaction, said Dr. Bland, causes inflammation within the brain. 

“That means that anything that causes inflammation in the central nervous system, including excess sugar consumption, or sedentary lifestyle, or exposure to toxic heavy elements, can alter the inflammatory pathways, cause insulin resistance, and trigger” changes in how the brain functions, said Dr. Bland. 

Dr. Bland said that excessive amounts of sugar, processed foods, and saturated fat from foods such as milk products – the very foods Dr. Feingold said caused hyperactivity — can cause inflammation in the brain and lead to ADHD. 

In fact, Dr. Bland maintains that, “All agents that the central nervous system perceives as ‘foreign’ might initiate an inflammatory response which in turn modifies” the chemical interactions within the brain and disrupt brain cell signaling. 

Since the 1950s, the consumption of processed foods, artificial ingredients – including artificial colors, preservatives, and flavors – has steadily risen.  At the same time, so too has the incidence of ADHD. 

Childhood Sensitivity And Foreign Foods

It’s very possible that children are especially sensitive to foods and chemicals that are essentially new to the human diet.   We have evolved as a species for the past two million years.  Some of these foods are only 50 years old, and have been introduced to the human diet only during the last decade or two. 

The immune system determines the difference between a safe and health-promoting substance, and one that is foreign, unknown, and potentially dangerous.  Those substances that are foreign and unknown trigger an immune reaction, otherwise known as inflammation.  Unfortunately, inflammation in the central nervous system, especially in the brain, can lead to a lot of dangerous problems. 

It’s time we acknowledged that children are far more sensitive than adults, and therefore need to be protected from the effects of sugar, processed foods, artificial ingredients, and high levels of saturated fat from animal sources. 

No one is suggesting that small amounts of these foods will cause disease.  On the contrary, it’s very likely that all of us are equipped with built-in protections that allow for a certain amount of freedom with these and other foods.  On the other hand, every human being is unique.  Each of us has our own unique limits, which means that the threshold for a food’s poisonous effects may be different for some children than it is for others.  Just because Johnny doesn’t show symptoms of ADHD after eating a plateful of doughnuts doesn’t mean that Sammy can eat that same plateful without suffering from some kind of side effect. 

Each child must be looked at individually, all of which means that parents must be sensitive to their children’s unique reactions.  They must also be willing to change the family diet in order to save their children from this terrible scourge.