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Q: Do synthetic dyes, flavors and preservatives make the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) worse?
A: There is little agreement on how such additives might contribute to ADHD symptoms in children. Many studies on this issue are either small or flawed.
Some well-designed studies have shown a mild increase in hyperactivity in some children who consume these additives. But authors caution that relatively few children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of artificial additives. They also point out that it's hard to determine which children are susceptible.
Worried about your children? Try to avoid major sources of artificial colors and additives. Limit candy, junk food, brightly colored cereals, fruit drinks and soda. See if symptoms improve after a few weeks.
But keep in mind, it's very hard to tell. Consider this:
Researchers studied boys, age 5 to 7. Their mothers believed they were sensitive to sugar. The researchers told the mothers their sons would be randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group would receive a high dose of sugar. The other group would get a sugar substitute. In reality, all the boys received the sugar substitute.
Mothers who thought their sons had a large amount of sugar reported that their child's behavior was significantly more hyperactive afterward. Researchers concluded that parents' expectations might change their perception when it comes to food-related behaviors.
For now, the consensus is that children with ADHD should have the same sensible diet recommended for all children. Encourage fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthy, unsaturated fats. Provide good sources of protein. And avoid unhealthy saturated and trans fats, rapidly-digested carbs and fast food.
If your child is sensitive to additives, a healthy diet may reduce symptoms of ADHD. Either way, your child can't lose. Such a diet will certainly improve overall health and nutrition. And it sets the stage for a lifetime of good health.
(Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, Mass. He is a Senior Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publications.)
(For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)