The Feingold diet is an elimination diet established by Dr. Benjamin Feingold in the 1970s. Over the years, the Feingold diet and variations of it have been touted to potentially help improve the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

There’s some evidence that food colorings and preservatives have an effect on behavior in a minority of children with and without ADHD. While elimination diets, including the Feingold diet, have been studied for over 40 years, results are still inconclusive, though a small number of children do appear to benefit from it.

Dr. Feingold, a pediatrician and allergist, first began recommending the diet to his patients to relieve symptoms of allergies, such as hives. Some of them reported an improvement in behavioral symptoms after following the plan.

The Feingold diet involves eliminating certain synthetic substances from the diet that have been linked to behavioral disorders.

You eliminate foods containing these substances to see if symptoms improve. After a period of time, the foods are reintroduced one at a time to test for a return of symptoms.

Though certain substances have been shown to cause unfavorable changes in the behaviors of children with sensitivities to them, there hasn’t been any conclusive evidence that they worsen or cause ADHD or that eliminating them is an effective treatment for it.

The Feingold diet is quite restrictive because the foods it recommends you eliminate, at least at first, is extensive. The Feingold diet involves removing:

  • artificial colorings, such as red 40 and blue 2
  • artificial flavorings, such as synthetic vanilla or peppermint
  • artificial sweeteners, including:
    • aspartame
    • sucralose
    • saccharin
  • preservatives, such as:
    • butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
    • butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
    • tert-Butylhydroquinone (TBHQ)
  • foods containing salicylates

Let’s look at what you can and can’t eat on the plan.

Foods to avoid

The following are foods the Feingold diet advises you eliminate:

  • almonds
  • apples
  • apricots
  • berries
  • cherries
  • cloves
  • coffee
  • cucumbers and pickles
  • currants
  • grapes
  • mint flavoring
  • nectarines
  • oranges
  • peaches
  • peppers
  • plums
  • prunes
  • tangerines
  • tea
  • tomatoes

Non-food substances to avoid

A number of non-food products containing synthetic and natural salicylates are also to be avoided on the diet. Some of these include:

  • aspirin and products containing aspirin
  • mint-flavored toothpaste
  • mouthwash

Foods to eat

Though this isn’t a complete list, these are some of the foods that are recommended on the diet:

  • bananas
  • beans
  • bean sprouts
  • beets
  • Brussels sprouts
  • cabbage
  • cantaloupe
  • carrots
  • cauliflower
  • celery
  • dates
  • grapefruit
  • honeydew
  • kale
  • kiwi
  • lemons
  • lentils
  • lettuce
  • mangoes
  • mushrooms
  • onion
  • papaya
  • pears
  • peas
  • pineapple
  • potatoes
  • spinach
  • squash
  • sweet corn
  • sweet potato
  • watermelon
  • zucchini

A full list of allowed foods can be purchased through the Feingold diet website.

According to a number of personal reports, the Feingold diet works. But — numerous controlled studies performed over the years have failed to prove that it’s effective.

Not only have studies not been able to conclude that it works, but researchers have continuously cautioned against depending solely on reports from parents when evaluating the Feingold diet and other ADHD diets.

One such study focused on parental reports stating that after following the diet, symptoms improved. When foods were reintroduced, they said symptoms returned. Yet, the study used 14 objective measures in a double-blind, crossover study and found no significant differences between following the diet properly and improperly.

Another review of all the completed controlled studies on the Feingold diet indicated that the diet was probably not effective, except possibly in a very small percentage of children.

The positive results have been inconsistent and greatly outnumbered by the negative findings. Researchers of this review suggested that the children whose parents felt the diet helped were likely experiencing a placebo effect due to the increased attention they were receiving from their parents rather than the diet.

Most of the research available on the Feingold diet is older. This is likely due to the futility of continuing to research a treatment method that up until now has scientifically shown to be ineffective.

What we do know is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers color additives safe based on evidence that shows that most children don’t experience adverse effects from consuming foods that contain them.

There is evidence that some children may have a sensitivity to food coloring, in which case avoiding them may be beneficial.

The Feingold diet isn’t recognized as a safe or effective treatment for ADHD or any other behavioral disorder by most experts.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ADHD can be effectively managed with treatments, including behavioral therapy, training for parents, and medications approved for ADHD.

The diet remains controversial for a number of reasons. Along with a lack of evidence to prove it works, the Feingold diet can be difficult to follow.

The number of foods that need to be eliminated on the diet is extensive. This can make shopping difficult, especially for busy parents and parents whose kids are fussy eaters.

On the subject of busy parents, many find it difficult to prepare all foods from scratch, which is recommended on the diet and one of the only ways to ensure you’re not inadvertently feeding your child a product that contains one of the ingredients not allowed.

Medical experts also caution against using restrictive diets in children. Following the diet may result in your child not getting all of the nutrients they need. This could lead to a nutritional deficiency, such as anemia.

An improper diet could also cause a number of physical symptoms, as well as emotional and behavioral symptoms.

Talk to your child’s pediatrician about foods to avoid for ADHD that may complement proven ADHD treatments. A diet should never replace medical treatment for ADHD.

The majority of evidence available has found the Feingold diet to be ineffective, and when effective, only in a small percentage of children with a sensitivity to the substances in question.

Talk to your child’s doctor about the pros and cons of eliminating food additives from their diet.

If you’re going to try the diet to see if it helps your child’s ADHD, be sure to do so under the supervision of a doctor or dietitian. Such a restrictive diet could do more harm than good.