Do Food Additives Make Hyperactivity Worse in Kids with ADHD? (Maybe it’s a Food Allergy…)

Posted March 12, 2008 by

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Many of you have been talking about the effects of diet and food additives on kids with ADHD, so I wanted to weigh in on this topic.

In a well-known UK study last year, the effects of artificial food color and additives (AFCA) on kids found that food additives make hyperactive behaviors more pronounced in children as young as 3 and up to middle childhood, around 9 years of age. The study found that a significant though small group of children exhibited hyperactivity as a result of drinking a specially concocted drink containing food colors and preservatives.

What this means is that some children react to substances found in many processed foods that may increase hyperactivity and inattention–to the extent of causing problems at school. In the study, 18% of the children were adversely affected by the drink.

So it appears that up to 18% of the child population may exhibit hyperactivity symptoms as the result of consistent exposure to food additives. The question is: Do these kids have ADHD, or something else?

In order to be diagnosed, the child must meet the criteria for the disorder plus not have any other conditions that might cause the symptoms. One could make that point that these kids have an allergy to these substances and should not be diagnosed as having ADHD. (There are other substances, such as lead, that can also cause these symptoms.)

If you suspect an allergy, it should be treated by an elimination diet. A well known program for this purpose is the Feingold Diet. I have always told parents who ask to go ahead and try this approach as it is not harmful at all. (One note of caution: It’s very time-consuming and has not yielded significant results when used with children who already have been diagnosed with ADHD.)


Dr Robert Myers is a child psychologist with more than 25 years of experience working with children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and learning disabilities and is the creator of the Total Focus Program. Dr Myers is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at UC Irvine School of Medicine. "Dr Bob" has provided practical information for parents as a radio talk show host and as editor of Child Development Institute's website, which reaches 3 million parents each year. Dr. Myers earned his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.

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  1. CC Report

    Please list the medications, such as Singualir given to kids routinely, that adversley affect a childs behavior. I believe there are so many kids being drugged with medication that cause them to act out, be angry and do things they don’t understand and then they are punished — when it is NOT their fault. It’s the drugs!!! Thanks.

  2. Sara Report

    When my son was 3 yrs. old he was diagnosed with a severe allergic reaction to high dyes, he would get a severe headache then threw up after he would throw up he would be fine and the doctor said that usually they grow out of it by the age of 5.It did some what stop at the age of 6. then at 7 yrs. old he was diagnosed with adhd. It took me a long time to decide to put him on meds., i don`t think that kids should be medicated, unless it is totally necassary. Well i put him on meds. and for the first year he did ok, but i noticed every time he ate high dye foods or drinks it countereacted the meds. and started to get ticks. So i stopped giving it to him. I have been doing the feingold diet since he was 3. He is now 10yrs.old and he does ok, i still have to fight to get him to do homework unless its math than he will do it,chores he refuses. Then theres the name calling,emotional outburts, physical abuse and damaging of property that is driving me insane. I don`t know what to do. NEED ADVICE

  3. Donna Report

    Several years ago when I was having difficulty with my son, who was 9, having emotional outburst for no apparent reason, a friend recommended I look into the Feingold Diet. After reading all the information available we decided to give it a try. Cleaning out the cupboards was hard. In just 2 weeks the change was amazing. My son was able to control himself and get his school work done much better. The emotional meltdowns had decreased dramatically. After a month on the program it was easy to tell when he ate something that was not on the “approved list”, in 2 – 4 hours he would be an emotional wreck. One afternoon he came home from school in a very bad state. I asked him what he had to eat, his reply was nothing but a few gummy worms. When asked what color those gummy worms were he understood the meaning. Food colors and preservatives are major problems for him.

    We took the position that he needed to learn that when he was overly upset, he needed to look at what he had eaten and determine if the problem was the person or thing he was upset at or was it his perception that was effected by something he ate. He is now 14 and the emotional meltdowns have stopped, he is able to manage his own diet and knows how different foods are going to affect him. He is not 100%, but he realizes that sometimes his mood is coming from something he ate and not an outside source.

    It is amazing how quickly I can read a food label after all these years.

  4. Kelly Fitzpatrick, Portland, OR 503-805-9716 Report

    Our naturopath taught me that the difference between a food allergy and a food sensitivity is that: a food allergy is life-threatening and a food sensitivity affects the brain chemistry which in turn causes dramatic behavioral effects. I was taught that while I was growing up ( I am 51), children were exposed ( in the 1960’s and 1970’s) to a half a pound of food dye and preservatives a year. Now kids are exposed to TEN POUNDS of food dyes and preservatives a year, all affecting the brain. My son had severe food sensitivities which caused dramatic out of control behavior. When he was a toddler, if he had a red gumdrop, 20 minutes later, I would have to hold him as he spun like a tornado with his arms flailing, and he had high pitched, enraged yelling. As he got older, he always was running, high energy, never could sit still, often with a hot temper out of nowhere for no apparent reason. I tried the Feingold diet with my son for almost two very long years. I finally was referred to a naturopath at our local naturopathic college who had a “VAGA machine” to do an “EAV test” to test everything – and in 20 minutes we had a five page list of foods, chemicals, herbs, airborne smells, etc., etc. that he chemically sensitive to, as well as those substances he WAS OKAY with. With this great list, we know EXACTLY what he COULD eat and so could fill our cupboards with these new “regular” foods for him, and BECAUSE he was on his own diet, he OUTGREW most of his sensitivities.. He needed help to learn to process his emotions instead of going with the life-long habit of just acting out. But once his brain chemistry settled way down, he was no longer overflowing, full of frantic energy and chemically induced rage. Finally, he had no more volcanic outbursts, his energy leveled out, and he was able calm down enough to learn how to control his normal emotions. – Kelly F., Portland, OR

  5. Steve Report

    Another effect felt by many children with allergies is exhaustion and/or difficulty concentrating. As a child my allergy to wheat (and any gluten containing foods, as I later discovered) caused these problems. It’s harder to learn and rise to challenges when you’re tired.

  6. Christina Miller Report

    As a Registered Dietitian and a mother of two wonderful boys, both with ADHD – diet is always a concern for me. If I eliminate too many foods, then my child becomes at risk for malnutrition. If I leave in foods that may be allergenic or not well tolerated, then my child’s behavior suffers. From my personal experience, and review of scientifc literature (wearing my professional hat), these are the things that I’ve found most effective:
    1. Don’t let your kid go hungry! Make sure they have regular meals and snacks 7 days a week. This prevents the crankiness from blood sugar swings.
    2. Do eliminate artificial colors as much as possible. I do this by buying organics for “kid foods” like pop-tarts (Nature’s path make an organic toaster pastry)
    3. Cut back on sugar and white flour to help keep your child’s metabolism steady (see #1).
    4. Lots of fresh fruit and veggies. Frozen are just as nutritious and are quick and easy.

    As far as eliminating gluten and other foods – I do recommend an elimination diet followed by food challenge testing.

    Mom RD



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