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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