Diet & Behavior in Children

By Schardt, David | Nutrition Action Healthletter, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Diet & Behavior in Children


Schardt, David, Nutrition Action Healthletter


It's enough to drive you up the wall. Jacob or Emily doesn't seem to be able to concentrate on anything for more than a couple of seconds. Sitting still in class--not to mention doing homework--next to impossible.

What's the problem? For a growing number of kids, it's attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)--the most commonly diagnosed behavioral problem in children in the U.S. An estimated three to five percent of all children suffer from the reduced attentiveness and concentration, excessive activity, distractibility, and impulsiveness that are its most common signs. That's one child for every classroom in the country.

What are we doing to treat those kids? Spend lunchtime in the nurse's office of any school and you'll see, as youngsters trickle in for their pills. Since 1990, sales of drugs like Ritalin have increased five-fold.

While the drugs usually help relieve the symptoms of ADHD, many parents worry that their children may become dependent. They're also concerned about side effects like weight loss and insomnia. And there's disturbing evidence that Ritalin, the most popular stimulant drug that's used to treat ADHD, causes cancer in laboratory animals (see "Ritalin: Is it Safe?").

Is there a safer way to treat hyperactivity? At least part of the answer may lie not in the medicine cabinet, but on the dinner plate and in the snack-food aisle.

How It Started

The idea that food can affect children's behavior gained popularity in the early 1970s, when California allergist Benjamin Feingold claimed that the behavior of many of his young patients improved when he placed them on special diets to treat their food allergies. Feingold blamed food additives--especially food dyes--as well as salicylates, which ate chemicals that occur naturally in most fruits.

Since then, 23 good studies have looked at whether food dyes of ordinary foods worsened behavior in children with ADHD or other behavioral problems. A few of the studies compared regular diets to ones free of additives like food dyes, preservatives, and caffeine. Others put kids on highly restricted diets and then "challenged" them by feeding them food dyes or foods--like milk of wheat--that typically cause food allergies.

In all the studies, the capsules, foods, and meals tested on the children sometimes contained food additives of suspect foods and sometimes didn't. Neither the children nor the parents, teachers, or psychologists who rated the children's behavior knew who was getting what until after the studies were completed. That made it less likely that the adults' expectations influenced the results.

"Some of these studies demonstrated significant improvement in the behavior of children when their diets were changed, of deterioration in their behavior when they were given food dyes or other offending foods," says Eugene Arnold, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Ohio State University. But in other studies, the improvements were small, and in a few there were none.

The studies leave some important questions unanswered:

1. How many kids are affected by diet? Nobody knows. The results varied widely from one study to another--no surprise, since the researchers tested different additives of foods on kids with different problems. What's more, even if, say, half the children in these studies consistently reacted to diet, you couldn't conclude that half of all kids with ADHD of other behavioral problems would. Youngsters usually qualified for the studies because their parents or preliminary tests suggested that they were sensitive to food. So they may not be typical.

2. Which kids are affected by diet? Nine of the 23 studies looked only at children with typical ADHD. In eight of them, the behavior of at least some children either worsened after they consumed food dyes or improved when they ate an additive-free diet.

The other 14 studies looked at children who suffered from ADHD plus asthma, eczema, or food allergies; non-ADHD behavioral problems like irritability and sleep disturbances; or more severe behavioral of neurological disorders. …

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