Dietary Interventions for ADHD

By Eve Kessler, Esq.


Food dyes can affect ADHD and hyperactive behavior, but they do not cause it • But for some kids, dietary changes in conjunction with standard ADHD care may help with their behavioral issues

Parents of kids with ADHD are constantly searching for ways to manage their kids’ hyperactivity, inattention, and reduced focus. For some kids, dietary interventions may be helpful. Clinicians and parents have long suspected a possible link between behavior and diet, especially artificial food colorings (AFCs). New research has concluded artificial dyes can worsen behavior in some kids with and without ADHD—and kids with ADHD are typically more sensitive to dyes than others. Specifically, dyes may cause symptoms in up to eight percent of children with ADHD, impacting hundreds of thousands of kids and their families daily.

Joel Nigg, Ph.D., a leading ADHD researcher, sees artificial food dyes as one of many considerations for attentional and emotional health. If parents want to make nutritional changes, he suggests they do so as part of a more global approach to prioritizing their children’s overall health: include a food plan for ADHD in addition to standard care, not instead of it; introduce appropriate amounts of exercise and sleep into the daily routine; and minimize negative factors, such as high stress levels, conflicts at home and in school, excessive toxic air and noise pollutants, and AFCs.

Action Plan

Dr. Nigg recommends the following nutritional interventions as part of a thoughtful action plan with scientific efficacy:

Consider basic dietary interventions. Food sensitivities can contribute to ADHD, but food dyes are only a small part of the total food effect on ADHD. Most kids who are sensitive to AFCs are also sensitive to other allergens in foods. If your child’s behavior appears to be food-related, have her assessed for typical food allergies. For instance, your child might have a common allergy to dairy, nuts, seafood, soy, chocolate, or eggs and/or an intolerance to lactose, gluten, nitrates, fructose, or MSG. Speak with your child’s pediatrician about possible deficiencies in Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin D, or minerals (e.g., iron and zinc), and add nutrient supplements if necessary.

Read labels closely and look for natural coloring. The FDA requires manufacturers to list all AFCs on food/product labels. Look for foods and personal care products made with natural food coloring from fruit and vegetable extracts, instead of AFCs. Be vigilant: AFCs are often found in unexpected places.

Pay attention to dye quantities. Some foods contain much more dye than others. Because kids react more negatively when ingesting over 50 milligrams of dye/day, replace deeply colored drinks made with large amounts of dye (e.g., cherry Kool-Aid—over 50 mg/serving) with ones containing less (e.g., Country Time pink lemonade—.2 mg/serving). The good news: AFCs are getting easier to avoid. In response to consumer demand, companies (including Kraft, Heinz, Nestle, General Mills, Yoplait, and Mars) are replacing AFCs with plant-based natural colors; and over-the-counter medications often have dye-free alternatives.

Replace processed and packaged foods with real whole foods. Shop the outside aisles of the market for a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole foods. Add healthy fats from nuts and seeds (walnuts; flaxseeds) and oily fish (salmon; mackerel; sardines; herring), or supplements from fish oil (1,000 mg. EHA/DPA) and algae-based Omega 3. Eliminate added sugar (boxed and canned foods; soda; juices) and caffeine (energy drinks; coffee; tea). Provide healthy food choices at home and on-the-go. When possible, shift to organic.

Cook with naturally derived dyes. When cooking and baking at home, replace AFCs in recipes with natural alternatives: berries, cherries, beets, grape skin, tomatoes, and red cabbage (pink, red, purple); carrots, sweet potato and pumpkin (orange); turmeric, saffron and paprika (orange-yellow); spinach, matcha and wheatgrass (green); and coffee, tea and cocoa (brown).

Consider an elimination diet under medical supervision. For some kids, elimination diets may be extremely helpful. Thirty-three percent of kids with ADHD improve on broad elimination diets that restrict trigger foods and preservatives, as well as AFCs. Currently, however, there is no way to tell in advance which kids will be sensitive or what they will be sensitive to —the only way to find out is by trial and error.

This article is based on the ADDitude expert webinar, ADHD and Food Dyes, Nutrition, and Supplements, by Joel Nigg, Ph.D. Dr. Nigg is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience and director of the Center for ADHD Research at Oregon Health & Science University and author of the recent book Getting Ahead of ADHD: What the Next Generation Science Says about Treatments that Work—And How You Can Make Them Work for Your Child. 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

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