Diet and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

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For some children, diet is suspected of playing a role in the multiple behavioral and cognitive symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Concerns have focused on food additives, blood sugar regulation, food allergies and intolerances, and vitamin, mineral and fatty acid deficiencies.

Food coloring and additives[edit]

Since the 1970s and the well-publicized advocacy of Benjamin Feingold, there has been public concern that food colorings may cause ADHD-like behavior in children.[1] These concerns have led the FDA and other food safety authorities to regularly review the scientific literature, and led the UK FSA to commission a study by researchers at Southampton University of the effect of a mixture of six food dyes (Tartrazine, Allura Red, Ponceau 4R, Quinoline Yellow WS, Sunset Yellow and Carmoisine (dubbed the "Southhampton 6")) and sodium benzoate (a preservative) on children in the general population, who consumed them in beverages; the study published in 2007.[1][2] The study found "a possible link between the consumption of these artificial colours and a sodium benzoate preservative and increased hyperactivity" in the children;[1][2] the advisory committee to the FSA that evaluated the study also determined that because of study limitations, the results could not be extrapolated to the general population, and further testing was recommended".[1]

The European regulatory community, with a stronger emphasis on the precautionary principle, required labelling and temporarily reduced the acceptable daily intake (ADI) for the food colorings; the UK FSA called for voluntary withdrawal of the colorings by food manufacturers.[1][2] However in 2009 the EFSA re-evaluated the data at hand and determined that "the available scientific evidence does not substantiate a link between the color additives and behavioral effects" for any of the dyes.[1][3][4][5][6]

The US FDA did not make changes following the publication of the Southhampton study, but following a citizen petition filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in 2008, requesting the FDA ban several food additives, the FDA commenced a review of the available evidence, and still made no changes.[1]

There is no evidence to support broad claims that food coloring causes food intolerance and ADHD-like behavior in children.[7]:452 It is possible that certain food coloring may act as a trigger in those who are genetically predisposed, but the evidence is weak.[1][8]

Sugar regulation[edit]

A number of studies have found that sucrose (sugar) has no effect on behavior and in particular it does not exacerbate the symptoms of children diagnosed with ADHD.[9][10][11] One study demonstrated the impact of expectancy effects in parents' perceptions of their children's hyperactivity after consuming sugar. In this study, parents who were told their child had ingested a high concentration of sugar in drink form (even though the drink was actually flavored with aspartame), reported their child as being more active, inattentive and resistant to parental demands. This was in comparison to the group who were told (accurately) that their child had ingested no sugar.[12]

Omega-3 fatty acids[edit]

Some research suggests that children with ADHD may have low blood levels of essential omega-3 fatty acids.[13] However, it is unknown if decreased blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids can cause or exacerbate ADHD or whether lower blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids associated with ADHD are caused by an underlying mechanism.[13][14] Fish oils appear to reduce ADHD-related symptoms in some children. A double blind study has showed "medium to strong treatment effects of omega 3 fatty acids on symptoms of ADHD" after administering amounts around 1 gram for three to six months.[15] Several other studies showed similar effects, especially of Omega 3 fatty acids with Zinc and Magnesium.[16][17][18] A recent longitudinal study that examined the effect of omega-3 in an animal model of ADHD found gender-specific changes in all ADHD-symptoms.[19] Thus though it is increasingly documented in clinical studies that omega 3 fatty acids provide a safe way to treat ADHD-symptoms the mechanism of the effect may interact with several other factors such as gender.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h FDA. Background Document for the Food Advisory Committee: Certified Color Additives in Food and Possible Association with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children: March 30-31, 2011
  2. ^ a b c Sarah Chapman of Chapman Technologies on behalf of Food Standards Agency in Scotland. March 2011 [Guidelines on approaches to the replacement of Tartrazine, Allura Red, Ponceau 4R, Quinoline Yellow, Sunset Yellow and Carmoisine in food and beverages]
  3. ^ EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to food (ANS) Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation of Sunset Yellow FCF (E 110) as a food additive. EFSA Journal 2009; 7(11):1330 doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2009.1330
  4. ^ EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food (ANS) 091113 Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation of Ponceau 4R (E 124) as a food additive] EFSA Journal 2009; 7(11):1328
  5. ^ EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to food (ANS). Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation of Quinoline Yellow (E 104) as a food additive. EFSA Journal 2009; 7(11):1329 [40 pp.]. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2009.1329
  6. ^ EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food (ANS) (November 2009). "Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation Tartrazine (E 102)". EFSA Journal 7 (11): 1331–1382. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2009.1331. The Panel concludes that the present dataset does not give reason to revise the ADI of 7.5 mg/kg bw/day. 
  7. ^ Tomaska LD and Brooke-Taylor, S. Food Additives - General pp 449-454 in Encyclopedia of Food Safety, Vol 2: Hazards and Diseases. Eds, Motarjemi Y et al. Academic Press, 2013. ISBN 9780123786135
  8. ^ Millichap JG, Yee MM (February 2012). "The diet factor in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder". Pediatrics 129 (2): 330–337. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-2199. PMID 22232312. 
  9. ^ Benton D (May 2008). "Sucrose and behavioral problems". Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 48 (5): 385–401. doi:10.1080/10408390701407316. PMID 18464029. 
  10. ^ "What Causes ADHD?". Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. United States Department of Health and Human Services. 2008. Retrieved April 22, 2010. 
  11. ^ Staudenmayer, Herman (1999). Environmental Illness: Myth and Reality. CRC Press. pp. 58–62. ISBN 1-56670-305-0. isbn13=978-1-56670-305-5 
  12. ^ Hoover, D.W. & Milich, R. (1994). The effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactions, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 22, 501-515.
  13. ^ a b Young G, Conquer J (2005). "Omega-3 fatty acids and neuropsychiatric disorders". Reproduction, Nutrition, Development 45 (1): 1–28. doi:10.1051/rnd:2005001. PMID 15865053. 
  14. ^ Haag M (April 2003). "Essential fatty acids and the brain". Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 48 (3): 195–203. PMID 12728744. 
  15. ^ Richardson AJ, Montgomery P (May 2005). "The Oxford-Durham study: a randomized, controlled trial of dietary supplementation with fatty acids in children with developmental coordination disorder". Pediatrics 115 (5): 1360–6. doi:10.1542/peds.2004-2164. PMID 15867048. 
  16. ^ Huss, Michael/Andreas Volp/Manuela Stauss-Grabo, 2010: Supplementation of polyunsaturated fatty acids, magnesium and zinc in children seeking medical advice for attention-deficit/hyperactivity problems - an observational cohort study. In: Lipids in Health and Disease 9, 105. <>
  17. ^ N. Sinn, J. Bryan: Effect of supplementation with polyunsaturated fatty acids and micronutrients on learning and behavior problems associated with child ADHD In: J Dev Behav Pediatr 28, 2007, S. 82–91 doi:10.1097/01.DBP.0000267558.88457.a5. PMID 17435458.
  18. ^ J. Frölich, M. Döpfner: Die Behandlung von Aufmerksamkeitsdefizit-/Hyperaktivitätsstörungen mit mehrfach ungesättigten Fettsäuren – eine wirksame Behandlungsoption? In: Z Kinder Jugendpsychiatr Psychother 36, 2008, S. 109–116 doi:10.1024/1422-4917.36.2.109, PMID 18622940.
  19. ^ Sandvik, T. (9 Sep 2012). "Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids induced gender-specific changes in activity, impulsiveness and attention in an animal model of Attention- Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.". DUO - Digital releases University of Oslo. Free full text