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ADHD in Children Health Center

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Expert Q&A: ADHD and Diet

An interview with Sheah Rarback, MS, RD


There are two theories being studied on this issue. Although studies have looked at the role of fish oil supplementation and its impact on behavior in children with ADHD, evidence is limited. One study found that school-aged children demonstrated improved learning with a trial of fish oil supplementation. Based on that study, researchers in another study found improvements in the behavior of children with ADHD with fish oil supplements on all parent scales of behavior -- but not from the teachers. A third small study found significant improvements in ADHD behavior on high doses of fish oil supplements.

The American Heart Association recommends everyone get two servings of fatty fish each week for the cardio-protective benefits of fish oil. The same holds true for children with and without ADHD and ADD. Still, we need more research before fish oil supplements can be used as a therapy to control behavior, and this should be discussed with your doctor.

The other area related to controlling behavior is the role of food additives and preservatives.

In one study, preschoolers who eliminated additives and preservatives in their diets improved, according to the parents -- but not clinically. In another, larger, well-controlled study of 100 children ages 3 and 8-9, researchers found the kids who ate preservatives (sodium benzoate) and a mix of food coloring additives were more hyperactive than those whose diets were free of these ingredients.

A review article evaluating the link between ADHD and food additives and preservatives surmised that some children with ADHD may be more sensitive to food coloring and preservatives, and elimination could improve behavior.

The bottom line: A trial of a diet free of food colorings and the preservative sodium benzoate is certainly worth trying.

It is interesting to note that the European Union Environmental Committee on food safety is recommending any foods with food dyes be labeled that they may provoke allergenic effects and hyperactivity in children. The group wants sweetness and colorings banned in food for babies and small children.

Q: What about the emotional impact of putting your child on a diet that makes him or her feel different?

Consider whether you are taking away nutritious foods your child likes to eat, and whether it will create social problems at home, school, or when visiting friends.

Parents need to become ace label-readers to choose foods without these artificial colorings and preservatives, and ideally purchase foods that the entire family can enjoy so the ADHD child does not feel singled out. Stores like Whole Foods pledge their foods are free of artificial anything; however, shopping at these kinds of markets can be costly.

Instead of totally eliminating these foods, you may want to consider scaling back on foods and beverages with the most food colorings, like blue, sweetened beverages, as these tend to have little nutritional value.

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