ADHD and Nutrition: Can Diet Have An Effect on ADHD?

Do foods containing additives trigger hyperactivity and affect the ability to concentrate? How does a diet lacking healthy foodspecific nutrients affect behavior? These are questions that have been asked for several decades, which is why there has been an increase in research conducted regarding the relationship between nutrition and ADHD.


Food additives can include preservatives, food colorings, and artificial sweeteners. While studies have shown that food additives, in some children, may worsen ADHD behaviors, the findings have been inconclusive.

The European Union requires that foods including certain food colorings contain a statement on the packaging that states, “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Yet, the FDA, to-date, has determined that research has not definitively made the association between these additives and activity levels of children; for this reason, the FDA only requires that the food coloring be listed in the ingredients.

Artificial sweeteners

The University of Maryland Medical Center cites a study showing that, in looking at children with a high intake of artificial sweeteners, there was no relationship between the artificial sweeteners and behavior. On the other hand, there are some researchers who think that continual, excessive sugar ingestion can alter brain processes, which might mimic symptoms of ADHD.

Some researchers believe that Aspartame and other chemical sweeteners that can create the symptoms of ADHD in the same way that artificial additives do. More research is needed before conclusions about the effects of artificial sweeteners on people with ADHD can be determined.


A study published in a leading British medical journal stated that food colorings mixed with a specific food preservative caused an increase in children’s activity level and led to them being more easily distracted. The preservative they studied was sodium benzoate, which is used in many sodas, as well as fruit juices, sauces, some vinegar and other foods.

Jim Stevenson, Professor of Psychology and leader in this area of research, believes that for a large group of children in the general population, consumption of certain mixtures of artificial colors and benzoate preservative can influence their hyperactive behavior. While he is not indicating that these two substances cause ADHD, his research has broken ground for additional focused, independent studies on the effects specific preservatives on behavior in children.

Fatty acids

It has been well-documented that essential fatty acids are necessary for proper brain development, as well as brain function. In many cultures around the world, essential fatty acids are readily ingested through intake of fish and many plants. However, the typical American diet falls short in supplying these necessary nutrients.

Research continues to explore this relationship. However, a 2005 study found that Mmega-3 supplements improved attention in healthy adults, probably due to the beneficial effect on the central nervous system. In a trial of young adults, these same researchers found a reduction in anti-social behavior with a supplement that included essential fatty acids.

At the end of the day, the advice we give patients is the same advice we give our family members: a diet that limits artificial ingredients, focuses on a variety of fresh produce and includes fish is your best bet for a long and healthy life. Elimination diets can help you determine if one or more of the factors listed above are of a particular concern to one individual, as everyone’s personal chemistry is different. The combination of medications and behavioral therapy are presently the best courses of action with documented improvements to symptoms of ADHD.

If you think a clinical trial with new medication might be the answer for you or your child struggling with ADHD contact us today to discuss options: 770-817-9200.