January 30, 2023
By Eve Kessler
Do you see a connection between your child’s behavior and what she eats? Numerous controlled studies have concluded that food dyes can worsen behavior in some children with and without ADHD. According to Dr. Joel Nigg, a leading ADHD researcher and author, artificial food colors (AFCs) may cause symptoms in up to 8% of children with ADHD nationwide, potentially affecting over 500,000 kids and their families.
If you’re wondering whether your child is especially sensitive to AFC or other preservatives, speak with her doctor or nutritionist about the pros and cons of various elimination diets. Make sure that whichever regimen you choose is conducted properly, under medical supervision.
7-Step Elimination Test
Following is Dr. Nigg’s 7-step plan for implementing a basic food-elimination test to see if there might be a relationship between your child’s behaviors and the foods she eats. Check with her doctor before getting started.
- Get the family on board. An elimination diet is a challenging undertaking, requiring a behavior plan with your child and a commitment from the entire family. Discuss the overall strategy and enlist the commitment of all family members—perhaps even requesting they sign a pledge to avoid foods with AFCs for two weeks.
- Stock up on fun snacks. Kids are going to miss their favorite foods. Find alternative foods to make up for the loss—organic snack bars, hummus and crackers, a mix of natural nuts, plain popcorn, or additive-free dark chocolate.
- Get rid of foods with AFCs. Clear your refrigerator, pantry and food storage areas of all foods with artificial dyes.
- Implement the plan. For two weeks, serve only dye-free foods at home and eat only dye-free foods when dining out. Recipes abound for home-baked goods using natural food coloring, and many kid-friendly restaurants now offer dye-free options (e.g., Wendy’s, Subway, Taco Bell, Panera, and KFC).
- Monitor behaviors before and during. Ask your pediatrician for an ADHD checklist of behaviors, and if your child has additional troubling behaviors, add them to the list. Make four copies and record your observations each week, beginning two weeks before starting the diet and continuing for the two-week trial.
- Reintroduce AFCs. At the end of two weeks, compare the pre-trial and actual trial results. If you see improvement in behavior, reintroduce foods one at a time for a few days to see if problems return. Alternatively, after two weeks, reintroduce AFCs by having your child drink a glass of water with a few drops of store-bought artificial food coloring and observe her behavior for three hours. If there’s no change, give her a second glass and look for hyperactivity.
- Draw conclusions. The results of the diet should be clear. If your child is sensitive to the reduction or removal of AFCs from her diet, you will see a definite improvement in behavior. If you don’t see a noticeable change, or if her response is subtle, the diet may not be worth the effort. Consider focusing, instead, on the general health benefits of improving overall nutrition.
This blog is based on an ADDitude expert webinar, ADHD and Food Dyes, Nutrition, and Supplements: The Latest Science on What Dietary Changes Improve (and Worsen) Symptoms, by Joel Nigg, Ph.D.; The Food Dye Blues, by Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, Parents Magazine, July 2014 issue; and The Truth About Food Dyes and ADHD: What the Science Tells Us, by the ADHD Editorial Board, medically reviewed by Joel Nigg, Ph.D., ADDitude, April 23, 2020.
Eve Kessler, Esq., a retired criminal appellate attorney, is Executive Director of SPED*NET, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.