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Sugars, Dyes and ADHD

Thursday, September 27, 2018
Bryony Kean, MS, RD Registered Dietitian, CHKD Healthy You for Life
Bryony Kean, MS, RD
   Registered Dietitian
   CHKD Healthy You for Life

What is it that causes kids to lose focus and struggle to concentrate or finish a task? Doctors and parents have been looking into potential links between children’s diets and ADHD for decades, and there are a number of different theories available. Depending on what you search for, you can find any number of different diets and specialty products that promise to treat hyperactivity in children. Most “diets” for children with ADHD focus on cutting out added sweeteners, natural and artificial dyes, and other potentially harmful food additives. While there is anecdotal evidence that a small percentage of children can benefit from these special diets, there is little hard science to back up the claims that any of them actually work.

Sugar has been villainized as the cause of hyperactivity and bad behavior in children and teens for quite some time. While there are occasional instances of children who show true sugar intolerances, multiple scientific studies have shown that sugar intake does not directly affect a child’s behavior. That being said, children who consume a diet high in added sugars are often filling up on empty calories and missing out on vital nutrients. Children in the United States frequently consume a lot of added sugars in sweet breakfast foods, snacks marketed to children, and sweetened beverages such as juice and soda.

The argument to limit food dyes in an attempt to affect behavior is more strongly supported. Many foods marketed to children contain brightly colored food dyes, but some colored foods can pose a health risk. Dyes in foods such as cakes, pop tarts, Cheetos, M&M's, gummies or a glass of Kool-Aid can affect children's behavior and learning, increasing ADHD symptoms in many children. Dyes are added to foods such as blueberry muffins, breakfast cereals, or fruit flavored drinks to make consumers think that there is real fruit in their food instead of chemicals. Many of these foods also contain extra added sugars and sodium. While many food dyes have been banned in Europe, children in the US are frequently offered foods containing dyes that may cause behavior issues. The Center For Science In The Public Interest is recommending that US companies stop putting chemical dyes in our food, but little is expected to change in the near future. Parents can be proactive by looking for food dyes on the ingredients lists of foods and drinks. The three main dyes thought to affect children's behaviors are Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6. Cutting these dyes out of the family diet may make a big difference in how you and your children feel.

In summary, the best diet for children struggling with ADHD is the same diet that would benefit all children and their families. Parents should consider cutting back on processed "kid food," such as gummies, chips, cookies, colored cereals and sweet drinks. Opt instead for a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Limiting synthetic food products, chemicals, dyes, and added sweeteners can improve the way children feel, and may improve their ability to concentrate and focus throughout the day. To learn more about providing a balanced diet, visit https://www.choosemyplate.gov/.

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Through a partnership with Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters (CKHD), CBA is proud to offer our annual ADHD symposium featuring world-renowned keynote speakers followed by breakouts sessions for parents/caregivers, clinicians, educators and adults. By popular request, we have made speaker presentations, when available, accessible online.

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