The Feingold diet is an elimination diet that was created specifically for children suffering from ADHD. It was discovered by the Mayo Clinic and devised by Ben Feingold, M.D. initially to treat asthma and allergies in the 1950s. He later discovered that it was even more effective for treating hyperactivity and other behavioral problems. 

Although there is little research supporting Feingold’s hypothesis, many families swear by the diet. 

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What is ADHD?

Before we dive into the diet itself, it is important to understand what ADHD is in the first place. ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and it is a mental health disorder that is associated with above-normal levels of hyperactive and impulsive behaviors.

Although it is usually diagnosed at childhood, ADHD normally continues through adulthood.

A common symptom of ADHD is the inability to focus at length on a given task or even sit still.

How to Follow the Feingold Diet?

The Feingold ADHD elimination diet requires the patient, adult or child, to eliminate the “Big 3”: artificial food colors, flavorings, and three preservatives. In addition to that, natural salicylates are also off limits.

The three preservatives are butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and tert-Butrylhdryquinone (TBHQ). 

Salicylates are naturally occurring compounds that some plants produce. Certain fruits and vegetables, spices, teas, and nuts produce more salicylate than others.

For example, blueberries, dates, strawberries and grapes contain a very high (>1mg) content of salicylate.

Consuming too much salicylate has been shown to cause several reactions including irritability, dark circles under eyes, distractibility and bedwetting.

Who is the Diet For?

While the Feingold diet was originally designed for an adult patient, mainly to treat an extreme case of hives (itchy welts caused by an allergic reaction), it became the go-to diet for treating and even curing many more allergies and other health conditions.

During the initial investigation, it was revealed that the patient also experienced major behavioral changes after adopting the diet. Feingold also tested the diet on many children and found much behavioral improvement.

For this reason, today, it is mainly recommended for children or adults with attention problems related to ADHD, but the Feingold Association also claims it can help treat asthma, eczema, migraines, or other behavioral problems as well.

Potential Health Benefits

While there lacks credible studies on the Feingold Diet, many studies exist that cover specific aspects of the diet itself.

1. Reduces Behavioral Symptoms 

A 2004 meta-analysis demonstrated that artificial food dyes promote hyperactivity, and that sensitivity to these dyes may not be limited to only people with hyperactivity syndromes. 

Even more, most trials were conducted using doses of food dye that are much less than what we consume in the real world.

A 2007 study published in The Lancet found that food additives — particularly artificial colors and the preservative sodium benzoate — increased hyperactivity in 3-, 8-, and 9-year-old children, with or without ADHD.

Unfortunately, in the United States, the FDA does not require a warning label on products containing food dye, making it more difficult to avoid such products.

Additionally, it was found that cutting out artificial food additives may ease mood problems in kids with autism. However, long term studies are necessary to draw exact conclusions. 

Also, processed foods and sweets, which contain a lot of food additives and dyes, were found to raise the risk of depression in kids and teens. Hence, cutting these foods out may prove beneficial. Yet, it is not guaranteed as some experts believe only children who are sensitive to these foods experienced the reduction in symptoms.

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2. Inexpensive

Unlike some diet programs, the Feingold ADHD elimination diet is not sold online in the form of meal kits. It is up to you to choose what to eliminate, buy and cook. For this reason, you will only replace the old foods with the new foods that are not allowed on the diet. Because it’s only a replacement, it should not cost a lot. 

Further, after the initial effort to replace the foods you have, the cost will remain the same.  

Potential Health Concerns

1. May Be Too Restrictive

Because the diet is geared mainly towards children, the extensive list of foods out of reach can make it much harder to follow. Actually, it may be very difficult to even convince the child to change, especially if they have a very attached relationship to certain foods.

Also, eating from the school cafeteria, restaurants and cafes may not be an option. Hence, it will require daily planning and preparing your child's meals.

Even enjoying a slice of cake at a birthday party may not be possible when on the diet.

Moreover, it can be tedious for many parents to read every nutrition label to make sure it is free from food colors, flavorings and preservatives as well as certain salicylates. In fact, a lot of these ingredients are not listed on the packaging because of legal loopholes many companies take.  

2. May Lead to Nutritional Deficiencies

The Feingold ADHD diet eliminates many foods including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Without proper planning, your child will not be able to get the essential vitamins and minerals as well as calories needed to promote healthy growth and development.

Also, if they are a picky eater, this can be even more difficult as they may prefer certain foods that may not be on the diet. Hence, they also will not eat much of foods they don’t find enjoyable.

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3. Requires More Research

There lacks well designed studies solely on the Feingold diet. Even when examining various aspects of the diet, such as the effect of food additives on behavior, current studies contain many flaws.

For example, some studies looked at behavioral issues in kids, while others only examine adults. Furthermore, some studies only examine the effects on females while others only on males. When different studies are testing on a variety of participants, it can be very difficult to draw generalized conclusions.

Even more, many studies rely on parental reports which can be inconsistent and inaccurate.

Additionally, because there are over 3,000 natural and artificial food additives, it is very difficult to come to a conclusion as the effects on behavior of one additive will differ from another.

Most importantly, behavioral disorders from ADHD to bipolar disorder are complex and highly individual. This means that what may work for one child may not work for the other. Therefore, consulting with a medical professional to find the right treatment for your child is crucial.

Bottom Line

The Feingold diet is straightforward, yet very time-consuming and restrictive. While many children experience behavioral improvements after following the diet, it is important to consult with a professional first.

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