Food Factors

How diet affects ADHD.

When a mother brings her 8-year-old son to a fast food restaurant, he requests a Coke. Concerned about her son having too much caffeine, the mom orders the orange-colored drink instead. Within 20 minutes, the boy is racing around the restaurant and crawling under tables.

A 9-year-old girl has no trouble focusing at school in the mornings. But she is always highly distracted in class after eating the additive-laden lunch served in her school’s cafeteria.

What do these children have in common? Both are sensitive to artificial food additives, many of which are made from petroleum.

The effects of synthetic food additives on behavior and learning were first recognized in the 1960s by Dr. Ben Feingold, a pediatrician and chief of allergy at the Kaiser-Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco, California. Feingold observed dramatic improvements in hyperactive children after putting them on a diet that eliminated synthetic food dyes, artificial flavorings and certain preservatives. This regimen is now called the Feingold Diet.

In Dr. Feingold’s time, few people realized that diet is linked to behavior and learning. This persists today. But, this should not be a foreign concept as we know that other things we consume, such as alcohol and drugs, can change behavior and affect concentration. Synthetic food additives can also have a profound effect. The molecules in them can travel through the bloodstream to the brain, where even a small amount can interfere with the brain’s normal chemical and electrical processes.

Children growing up in the 1940s consumed relatively few additives. Artificially colored and flavored candies were mostly limited to holidays and the occasional lollipop from the bank or barbershop. Most children were able to deal with this level of exposure. Gradually, however, our food supply began to change.

Fast forward to the present day— when children are exposed to additives in toothpaste, vitamins, beverages, medicine and even applesauce. Kids today drink sports drinks in unearthly hues and eat neon-colored cereals and many other fake foods. And if you think school lunches are a safe haven from synthetic additives, you are sadly mistaken. The average school serves frozen dishes composed of fats, soybean extenders, salt, MSG and high-fructose corn syrup treated with petroleum-based dyes, flavorings and preservatives.

The good news for parents and educators is that low-additive foods are easier to get, less expensive and tastier than you might imagine. The nonprofit Feingold Association (www.feingold.org) provides lists containing thousands of brand-name products that are free of the troublesome additives.

Following a well-received study published in The Lancet showing that certain synthetic food additives trigger attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms in children, the American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledged in its journal, AAP Grand Rounds, that “…a trial of a preservative-free, food coloring-free diet is a reasonable intervention” for hyperactive children. This statement pleased the Feingold Association, which believes that doctors should give information about all options to parents of children with ADHD.

The Lancet study also prompted 19 prominent American doctors and researchers to send a letter to Congress urging members to pass legislation prohibiting the use of these additives. And the Center for Science in the Public Interest, with the support of the Feingold Association, has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban them.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the British government called on manufacturers in the United Kingdom to voluntarily remove these chemicals from foods sold there, and the European Union passed legislation requiring warning labels on foods containing synthetic food dyes to state that they “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

Foods sold in the United States may one day be devoid of these troublesome additives. But until then, consider switching to a more natural diet in order to help your children behave and concentrate better. They will thank you when they are older.