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5 Food Items to Avoid with ADHD

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As you work with your doctor and behavioral coach to manage ADHD, you can give a little boost to their traditional approaches to symptom management. Scientists may not have a cure yet, but they have found some interesting connections between ADHD behaviors and certain foods. Eating a healthy, balanced diet is important. You may also notice a decrease in ADHD behaviors by avoiding certain foods. 

Chemical Culprits

Researchers have found that there may be a link between food dyes and hyperactivity. They continue to study this connection, but in the meantime, check ingredient lists for artificial coloring. The FDA requires FD&C Yellow No. 5, also called tartrazine, and FD&C Red No. 40, also called allura, to be listed on food packages. Other dyes may or may not be listed, but be cautious with anything colored that you put in your mouth. Think: toothpaste, vitamins, fruit and sports drinks, hard candy, fruit-flavored cereals, barbecue sauce, canned fruit, fruit snacks, gelatin powders, cake mixes.

Dyes and Preservatives

When an influential scientific study combined synthetic food dyes with the preservative sodium benzoate, it found increased hyperactivity. You might find sodium benzoate in carbonated drinks, salad dressings, and condiments. Other chemical preservatives to look for are BHA, BHT, sodium nitrate, and TBHQ. Experiment by avoiding these additives one at a time. See if behaviors improve. Although dyes and preservatives may be worth taking a look at, it should be noted that in 2011, the FDA said studies had not yet proven a connection between synthetic additives and hyperactivity.

Simple Sugars and Artificial Sweeteners

The jury is still out on sugar’s effect on hyperactivity. Even so, limiting sugar in your family’s diet makes sense. To eat fewer simple sugars, look out for any kind of sugar or syrup on food labels. 


When does an apple a day not keep the doctor away? When the person eating the apple is sensitive to salicylate. This is a natural substance abundant in red apples and other healthy foods like almonds, cranberries, grapes, and tomatoes. In the 1970s, Dr. Benjamin Feingold eliminated artificial dyes and flavors and salicylates from the diets of his hyperactive patients. He claimed 30 to 50 percent of them improved.


Like salicylates, allergens are in healthy foods, but if your body is sensitive to them, they might affect brain functions, triggering hyperactivity or inattentiveness. You might find it helpful to stop eating—one at a time—the top eight food allergens: wheat, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, soy, fish, and shellfish. Tracking food-behavior connections makes your elimination experiment more effective. A doctor or dietitian can help you with this process.

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