Dylan Jerrell was having a tough time in kindergarten. The energetic, outgoing child was easily frustrated, and he responded to challenges with meltdowns. His mom, Jacqueline Fellows, considered home schooling. His pediatrician offered medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
But then Fellows, a health writer, put Dylan on the Feingold diet, which eliminates artificial colors and flavors and some preservatives.
"I started the Feingold diet on a Saturday, the weekend after he'd been in the principal's office every day, and he's only been back to the principal's office once - and that was when someone fed him a hot dog," Fellows says. "It was amazing. It's not a silver bullet, but it's the most powerful tool that I have for him."
Parents of children with ADHD have been reporting marked behavioral improvements due to diets eliminating artificial food coloring and other additives for decades now, but those reports have gained traction in the past decade, with recent studies suggesting that scientists may have been too quick to dismiss dietary triggers for ADHD in the 1980s and '90s.
In 2007, a landmark British study published in The Lancet medical journal found that artificial food colors and preservatives increase hyperactivity in children.
A meta-analysis of 34 studies that appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2012 found that artificial food colors had a small but significant effect on ADHD symptoms, according to study co-author Joel Nigg, a professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University.
The authors estimated that as many as 8 percent of children with ADHD may have symptoms related to artificial food colors and 30 percent may have symptoms that improve when they follow more comprehensive diets that eliminate suspected allergens as well.
"The take-away is, it's not a waste of time," Nigg says of dietary restrictions for children with ADHD. "It has a chance of working - a less than 50-50 chance, but it's a chance. "
Eugene Arnold, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Ohio State University, points out that the British study found that artificial food dyes and preservatives increase hyperactivity in the general population of children, not just those with ADHD.
"It makes sense for all kids to reduce the amount of dye they take in," says Arnold, who adds that per capita consumption of artificial food dyes has quadrupled in the past 50 years.
Popularized in Benjamin Feingold's 1974 book, Why Your Child Is Hyperactive, the diet eliminates artificial colors and flavors and three preservatives, and it temporarily removes foods with natural salicylates, such as oranges and apples. The foods with natural salicylates may later be reintroduced.
ADHD diets - such as the Feingold diet - are basically elimination diets. You remove the foods or ingredients most likely to trigger or heighten symptoms, and if you see an improvement, you try adding back foods one by one, nixing the ones that bring back symptoms.
The chief suspects are artificial food colorings and preservatives, but the authors of a recent research analysis in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found diets are more effective when they restrict other foods as well. The authors estimated that 30 percent of children with ADHD experience a reduction in symptoms when they initially eliminate foods such as wheat, rye, barley, eggs, dairy, corn, yeast, soy, citrus, eggs, chocolate and peanuts.
Nigg says it appears some children are getting something close to full recovery from ADHD symptoms from dietary restrictions alone.
"I think it is possible that, for some kids, you would get a dramatic effect," he said. "And probably for a lot of kids, you'll get some effect."
CHICAGO TRIBUNE (MCT)