The role of food additives in causing or worsening ADHD is a controversial topic. Can removing certain foods from your child’s diet really help?
By Amy Paturel, MS, MPH and Medically reviewed by Kevin O. Hwang, MD, MPH
Do food additives have a role in the rising rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? This is a controversial subject among experts, but in fact, any child may be a little hyper after eating foods pumped with dyes, high-fructose corn syrup, and other artificial ingredients – whether or not he has ADHD. Unfortunately, such foods are more commonplace than you may think. Take any popular children’s cereal, for example, and you’ll probably see ingredients ranging from refined sugar, corn flour, and gluten to red dye #40, yellow #6, and blue #2.
But sugar and additives aren’t the only culprits. Several studies indicate that some children’s behavior significantly worsens after eating “healthful” foods like milk, eggs and wheat. Some potential problems in the diet include:
Food Colorings / Flavorings
In the mid-1970s, Benjamin Feingold, MD, suggested that enhancements added to processed food — including colorings, flavorings, and related substances — could trigger ADHD. And while a scientific review by the National Institutes of Health concluded that food additives affect only a small proportion of children with behavioral problems, recent research tells a different story. In a study of 300 children from the UK, researchers found that certain mixtures of artificial colors alongside sodium benzoate (a common preservative found in soda and ice cream) may increase hyperactivity.
Since most sugary products also contain dyes, caffeine, and artificial flavors, determining the role sugar plays in ADHD is a challenge. Even if a high-sugar breakfast triggers hyperactive behavior, there’s no way to identify it as the culprit in the midst of so many other potential offenders. “If you give a child jelly beans for breakfast, the crash and burn from the ‘normal’ physiology of blood sugar rising and falling is going to make him feel cranky and irritable,” says Roberta Anding, M.S., R.D., clinical dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital. “It’s poor nutrition, not true ADHD.”
Milk and Wheat
For some children with ADHD, a diet that eliminates gluten and milk products may produce improvements in behavior. “Milk products and glutens such as wheat are the foods most commonly linked to behavior changes,” says Dana Laake, R.D.H., M.S., co-author of The Kid-Friendly ADHD & Autism Cookbook. “And they’re not mandatory foods for human survival.” When the body doesn’t absorb these foods properly, it triggers an allergic response (think brain fog and mood swings).
If you think changing your child’s diet may help his or her ADHD symptoms, start by eliminating potential triggers for a week or two, suggests Laake. Then test your child by reintroducing foods one at a time and seeing how he behaves. If it turns out your child is sensitive to milk or other major sources of nutrients, remove those foods, but work with a dietitian to ensure your child gets the necessary nutrients for growth and development.
“The more restrictive the diet becomes, the more you need an expert to make sure you’re not treating one problem and creating another,” says Anding. The big risk is malnutrition since children have a greater need for complete nutrition than adults, thanks to growing bones, developing organ systems, and building immunity. And if elimination diets are taken to the extreme, they could cause a deficiency in key nutrients like calcium and B vitamins – the very nutrients associated with reducing symptoms of ADHD.
Whether refined sugars or additives affect behavior or not, most children would do best to avoid sugary, processed foods, Anding notes. Perhaps the best solution for any child – with ADHD or not – is to make sure he or she gets a well-balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, and whole unprocessed foods. After all, the body simply works better when it has the proper fuel.