Avoiding Food Additives May Help Childhood Hyperactivity
July 10, 2008—For children with hyperactivity, eliminating food additives should be part of a standard treatment program, according to Andrew Kemp, MD, author of an editorial in the British Medical Journal and professor of pediatric allergies and immunology in Sydney, Australia. Despite the lack of agreement on the effect of dietary modifications on hyperactivity in children, increasing evidence suggests that eliminating food preservatives and artificial colorings from a child’s diet may help.
The roots of hyperactive behavior
When a child is hyperactive, parents and health professionals often look at a variety of factors that may be contributing to the child’s behavior, such as stress in the home or school environment, divorce, death of a loved one, and certain medical or psychiatric conditions. But something as simple as a child’s diet may also play a role. In fact, increasing scientific evidence suggests that food additives may increase hyperactivity in some children.
A study published in the Lancet found that artificial colors and/or sodium benzoate preservative in the diet led to increased hyperactivity in three-, eight-, and nine-year-old children who did not have attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The study noted that food additives may increase hyperactivity in some children but not in others.
Various experts have weighed in about the impact of such additives on childhood hyperactivity. Dr. Kemp notes that a panel from the European Food Safety Authority acknowledged, after reviewing 22 studies and two meta-analyses from 1975 to 1994, that research provides evidence that food additives and colorings may affect activity and attention in children. However, a recent review of treatment for ADHD by the American Academy of Pediatrics Subcommittee did not review dietary modification as a treatment but supported stimulant medications.
Treatment options: drugs, behavioral therapy, diet—and ditching food additives
Currently, specific treatments for hyperactivity may include drugs, behavioral therapy, and dietary changes. Eliminating food additives is often regarded as an “alternative” rather than standard treatment for ADHD even though research has supported both drug therapy and dietary modifications, according to Dr. Kemp.
In advocating for diet modification as standard treatment, Kemp says, “In view of the relatively harmless intervention of eliminating colorings and preservatives, and the large numbers of children taking drugs for hyperactivity… an appropriately supervised and evaluated trial of eliminating colorings and preservatives should be part of standard treatment for individual children.”
Tips for parents
Parents with a hyperactive child may discuss these types of questions with their healthcare provider:
• Is increased stress causing the behavior? A divorce, loss, a move to another neighborhood, increased school workload, competitive activities, and many other factors can contribute to a change in your child’s behavior.
• Is your child getting enough exercise? A child may be labeled as “hyperactive” when in fact he or she is merely in need of more physical activity.
• Does your child have a supportive and nurturing environment at school that encourages individual learning styles? Again, a child may be labeled “hyperactive” if he or she does not conform to typical classroom standards.
• Any child with a significant change in behavior or persistent disruptive behavior should be evaluated by a physician to determine whether or not there is a medical cause. Evaluation by a physician or psychologist who is specifically trained in the area of hyperactivity may be helpful.
• Ask a physician or nutritionist who is aware of the effects of dietary factors on hyperactivity for suggestions in treating the behavior. Consider the role that food additives may be playing, and look for more fresh, unprocessed foods to enjoy with your family.
(BMJ 2008;336:1144; Lancet 2007;370:1560–67)
Jane Hart, MD, board-certified in internal medicine, serves in a variety of professional roles including consultant, journalist, and educator. Dr. Hart, a Clinical Instructor at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively about health and wellness and a variety of other topics for nationally recognized organizations, Web sites, and print publications. Sought out for her expertise in the areas of integrative and preventive medicine, she is frequently quoted by national and local media. Dr. Hart is a professional lecturer for healthcare professionals, consumers, and youth and is a regular corporate speaker.
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