03/16/2011 01:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can Nutrition Cure Distraction?

With more than 5 million U.S. children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, it's no wonder so many parents are desperately seeking some kind of magic bullet cure.

The latest hope comes in a recent study in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, suggesting that a rigorously restricted diet can do the trick.

The researchers studied 100 children ages four to eight, and all with symptoms of ADHD. They divided the kids into two groups, one free to eat without restrictions, and the other limited to a small number of hypoallergenic foods, including water, rice, lettuce, carrots, and turkey. Four weeks later, the scientists interviewed the children's parents, and concluded that 64 percent of the children on the special diet had improved so much that the disorder was no longer impairing.

Psychologist Lidy Pelsser, of the ADHD Research Center in the Netherlands, described the results as "shocking," concluding that diet is the main cause of ADHD symptoms, which include restlessness, impulsivity, and distraction. And not surprisingly, many parents seeking a non-pharmaceutical treatment have hailed the findings.

There are good reasons to be cautious about this and other promises of quick fixes, however, two of which were cited in The Los Angeles Times Monday. One expert criticized the researchers' decision to recruit such young children, in whom, he said, it's harder to be sure of an ADHD diagnosis. But more strikingly, as the Times noted, the parents of the children on the dramatically restricted diet necessarily had to be paying much more attention to those kids on a daily basis-- particularly hopeful attention which was helpful to their children in itself.

This rings especially true for me, having spent a full year working to focus my attention on the nature of the ADHD diagnosis that I share with my teenage son, and how best to cope with it.

One thing I've learned, as I've interviewed the field's leading experts, is that there are many different causes of the vague cluster of symptoms we call ADHD, but that the main one is most likely hereditary. ADHD is nearly as likely as height to be passed on from parent to child.

Food sensitivities may indeed play a part in aggravating symptoms, and a previous Lancet study has highlighted the role of additives and artificial coloring. Other research has focused on the harmful impact of pesticide exposure.

At the same time, it's important to note that ADHD can also be more or less impairing to a child in accord with his or her environment. Our overcrowded, antiquated public school classrooms are usually a very poor fit.

All this is to say that, alas, there's still no magic bullet, even for a parent willing and able to muster the extraordinary focus of monitoring his or her child's every bite.