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Experts Revisit Food Additives and ADHD

Research Suggests Limiting Food Additives in Diet May Help Kids With ADHD
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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May 22, 2008 -- The notion that artificial colors and preservatives in foods may play a role in hyperactivity has been largely dismissed within conventional medicine, but there are signs that this is beginning to change.

In a newly published editorial appearing in BMJ, pediatrics professor Andrew Kemp, MD, of the University of Sydney, called for removal of food additives from the diet to be part of standard initial treatment for kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Kemp cited a recent controlled trial showing an increase in hyperactivity among children without ADHD who were fed a diet high in food colorings and the preservative sodium benzoate.

Last February, editors of the American Academy of Pediatrics publication AAP Grand Rounds cited the same study as evidence that it is time to revisit the issue.

"The overall findings of the study are clear and require that even we skeptics, who have long doubted parental claims of the effects of various foods on the behavior of their children, admit we might have been wrong," the editors wrote.

Kemp tells WebMD that practitioners have largely ignored the clinical evidence suggesting that dietary modification improves ADHD symptoms in some children.

"Clearly it doesn't work for everybody, but very few treatments do," he says. "(Dietary modification) is certainly something that parents who want to avoid drugs could try for a month or six weeks."

Additives and ADHD

In the United States, 4.7 million children, including 9.5% of boys and 5.9% of girls, have ever been diagnosed with ADHD, according to the latest statistics from the CDC.

Stimulant medications such as Ritalin and Adderall are the most commonly prescribed treatments for hyperactivity, but family and behavioral therapy is also used.

In his editorial, Kemp argues that there is more research suggesting a benefit for dietary modification than for behavioral therapy, yet dietary modification has been widely dismissed as an alternative treatment.

He notes that of 22 studies conducted between 1975 and 1994, 16 found dietary modification to have a positive impact on at least some children with ADHD.

"In view of the relatively harmless intervention of eliminating colorings and preservatives, and the large number of children taking drugs for hyperactivity, it might be proposed that an appropriately supervised and evaluated trial of eliminating colorings and preservatives should be part of standard treatment for children," Kemp writes.

Food Additives on Trial

The 2007 study cited by Kemp and the AAP editors included 297 British children from the general population who were either age 3 or between the ages of 8 and 9 and whose diets were closely controlled for six weeks.

During the study, the children drank either beverages with food additives or a placebo drink with no additives.

Neither the children nor the researchers knew which beverage the children were getting.

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