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Ask Dr. K: Eliminating food additives may help kids with ADHD

DEAR DOCTOR K: My son has ADHD. Should I eliminate all foods that contain artificial food coloring from his diet?

DEAR READER: I’ve asked my pediatric colleagues here at Harvard Medical School for their thoughts about your question. They reminded me that some parents, advocacy groups and scientists have long worried about a link between artificial food colorings and hyperactivity in children.

In March 2011, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel reviewed evidence on this topic. The FDA concluded that artificial food colorings do not appear to contribute to hyperactivity, distractibility and other behavior problems in most children.

On the other hand, the FDA allowed that certain children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be uniquely vulnerable, not just to food colorings, but to any number of food additives. ADHD symptoms include inattention, hyperactivity or impulsive behavior.

If you’re worried about artificial colorings in your son’s food, consider the following:

— Avoid a radical approach. For most children with ADHD, radical diets will not do any good. Try not to let your concern over food additives distract you from established guidelines for healthy eating.

— Try eliminating some foods. Experiment a bit. Remove the major sources of artificial colors and additives from your son’s diet to see if his symptoms improve. Those sources include candy, junk food, brightly colored cereals, fruit drinks and sodas.

The symptoms to focus on in determining whether your son’s ADHD is improving with these changes are inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.

Inattention in kids (and adults) with ADHD is reflected in different behaviors. After you eliminate artificial colors and food additives, does your son seem less forgetful? Less easily distracted? Does he complete tasks you’ve asked him to do more often? Is he getting better grades at school?

Improvement in hyperactivity usually is easier to spot. Is your son less fidgety — does he stay seated in one place more often, instead of being restless? Is he more likely to complete a one-person game on the computer?

As for impulsivity, is your son more able to wait his turn? Does the teacher say he is less likely to interrupt her and other students when they are talking? Is he less likely to say bad things or hit other kids when he gets mad? If he has been experimenting with alcohol, tobacco or drugs, has this behavior quieted down?

ADHD can damage a child’s development. It can make it harder to develop friendships or to do well in school. It can lead to behaviors, such as experimenting with drugs, that can damage the child. Reducing or eliminating foods with a lot of artificial coloring or additives may not make a difference for the average kid with ADHD. But your son may be one of the kids who are helped, so give it a try.

Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.

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