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ADHD and Diet
Q: Are there certain foods to avoid or a special diet that would help children with ADHD?
A: In the mid 1970's, there was a great deal of attention paid to the work of Dr. Benjamin Feingold, a physician who claimed that many children had a hypersensitivity or allergy to certain chemical substances added to food to make them taste or look better. He felt that artificial food flavorings and colors were responsible for the learning, behavior, and attention problems of many children. Many parents and some professionals seeking a simple drug-free solution for such difficulties put children on Feingold's "elimination diet," which only included additive-free foods.
Proponents of the Feingold diet made dramatic claims that an additive-free diet would cure almost any child with learning, behavior, and attention problems. Since most of the claims made about the Feingold diet were based on individual case studies and not on careful scientific studies, most specialists in the field of ADHD felt that there was not enough evidence to support the claims made by the advocates of Dr. Feingold's treatment. It is thought that the positive effects reported by many of the participating families were not really the result of the diet, but rather the result of all the positive energy and attention focused on the child with the problem (e.g., the entire family going food shopping or preparing or serving meals together, etc.).
Despite the criticisms of the "Feingold Movement," or because of it, in 1982 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) put together a panel to examine the effects of diet on behavior. This group concluded that food additives and certain foods affect a small proportion of children with behavioral problems, and suggested that the matter be examined more fully. A study conducted in 1999 by the Center for Science in the Public Interest reviewed 23 studies that looked at the effects of diet on behavior. The study discovered that 17 of these studies found that some children's behavior worsens significantly after they consume artificial colors or certain foods, such as milk or wheat. The effect was greatest on younger children and those who had already been diagnosed with other allergies.
Many professionals in the field often state there is no widely accepted evidence that special diets have a beneficial effect on significant numbers of children with ADHD. However, it is clear that some children are affected by what they eat. We do know that a properly balanced diet helps to develop healthy brain cells and the chemicals needed to help those cells work efficiently, so it's very important for all children to eat well. Some excellent studies show that sugar intake can have a mild impact on the behavior of a small number of children with ADHD, and a reduction in sugar consumption (in addition to being better for health) may help some children a little.
While the studies do not "prove" any connection for large numbers of children, your child might just be one of those affected. If your child is young or has other allergies and exhibits some of the symptoms associated with ADHD, you might want to consider a little experiment. Try eliminating sugars (of all kinds), and wheat and milk products -- look for "hidden" amounts in prepared foods -- for two weeks. Then carefully re-introduce these foods one by one, and look for changes in your child's behavior. This takes time and patience, but just might be worth the effort.
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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.