Diet for ADHD Children: A Parent's Guide (page 4)

— Center for Science in the Public Interest
Updated on Feb 15, 2011

Try, And Try Again

If the initial dietary changes had little or no benefit, and you excluded only dyes, try putting your child on the complete Feingold diet. If that doesn’t help, the Feingold Association, recommends, based on parents’ experiences, eliminating:

  • corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, and corn sugar (in soft drinks and other sweetened foods)
  • MSG (monosodium glutamate) and HVP (hydrolyzed vegetable protein, which contains some glutamate)
  • sodium nitrite (in luncheon meats)
  • calcium propionate (in baked goods)

After several weeks, if your child’s behavior has improved, every few days you could add back one eliminated food or ingredient at a time to see if it causes a problem. You’ll need to repeat that two or three times to confirm that the food is really a culprit. Knowing which foods do not pose problems allows your child to eat a wider range of foods.

The “Few-Foods” Diet

If your child’s behavior did not improve on the Feingold diet you could try a “few-foods” diet, which involves more extensive restrictions. Studies indicate that some children are sensitive not just to food additives but also to such foods as:

  • wheat
  • eggs
  • milk and other dairy foods
  • chocolate
  • soybeans/tofu
  • corn products (including corn sugar and syrup)

On this diet, you would eliminate as many of those foods as you can, plus artificial colorings and other additives. Children can eat fresh meat and poultry, any vegetable (except corn and soybeans), fruits and fruit juices (but not citrus fruit/juice and not beverages normally consumed daily), rice, and oats. You should seek assistance from an allergist if you undertake an elimination diet, especially if your child has eczema or other allergies (severe reactions might occur when a food is reintroduced).

The more foods you try to eliminate, the more complicated it will be to provide healthy meals and win your child’s cooperation. Fortunately, most of the restrictions will be temporary, because you will be trying to identify the foods that do not cause problems, as well as those that do.

Keep your child on the few-foods diet for two weeks, tracking his or her behavior until you notice two consecutive days of significantly improved behavior. Again, we note that it can be difficult to distinguish an effect of diet from your child’s normal fluctuations in behavior. If you do not notice any improvement, you can end your experiment.

If you have noted improved behavior, add back to your child’s diet one of the eliminated foods or additives at a time. After your child has eaten that food for several days in a row, note in your diary any symptoms that develop. If that food did not affect your child, then consider it safe to eat. If your child’s behavior deteriorated, leave that food out of the diet or retest it again later. Every few days add back another food and keep track of how your child reacts. Gradually, you may be able to identify foods that do and do not affect your child.

If your child stays on a sharply restricted diet for more than a few weeks, you should work with a dietitian to plan a diet that provides all the nutrients your child needs. Also, your child should take a daily vitamin-and-mineral supplement, which makes sense regardless of what diet he or she is on.

Another approach is to feed your child the few-foods diet until you see an improvement. Then add back everything —dyes, wheat, the works—for several days to see if anything triggers a reaction. If your child’s behavior worsens, return your child to the special diet and add back foods one by one until you find the problems.

Finally, don’t expect diet to bring about miraculous improvements in behavior. Even in kids who are affected by food ingredients, eliminating the culprits often yields only a partial improvement. But even partial improvements could be most welcome. If your child does not benefit significantly from a restricted diet, you should discuss with your pediatrician other treatment options, including medications and behavioral counseling.

Good Nutrition

Whether or not your child has ADHD or other behavioral problem, he or she should eat a nutritious diet. Most children eat far too many fatty, salty, and sugary foods—from burgers, fries, cheese, and ice cream to soft drinks, potato chips, and candy. And few children get the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals they need from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It is important to your child’s current and future health to eat a really healthful diet (and that may mean that you need to improve your own diet to set a good example!). First steps include getting rid of the junk foods in your home, putting fatty and sugary foods off-limits when eating out, and turning off television shows riddled with junk-food ads. Also, give your child a daily vitamin-and-mineral supplement.

CSPI is a nonprofit health-advocacy organization. The contents of this pamphlet are not intended to provide personal medical advice, which should be obtained from a qualified health professional. Copyright © 1999 by CSPI

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