Over the past 30 years, researchers have been investigating significant factors related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Specifically, they are interested in what is causing this behavior, and what can be done to relieve it. The neuroscience approach is looking directly at the brain functioning and nutritional needs of children with ADHD.
Nutrition plays a major role in brain health. In the research, children diagnosed with ADHD are presenting with more nutritional deficiencies than their peers.
This suggests that nutritional deficiencies are playing a role in brain function. In addition, to nutrition, genetics are also playing a role. Our genes may highlight where the weak link is, and thus how chronic nutritional dysfunction might manifest physically. In ADHD, this weak link, is the brain. Many people with ADHD have difficulty producing and processing dopamine. Dopamine helps us manage stimulation. In other words, not having enough dopamine can feel like the world, or our lives, is unmanageable and overwhelming. Nutritionally we can support neurotransmitter health by adding in healthy fats, and increasing overall consumption of Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). The standard american diet is very low in Omega-3’s and extremely high in Omega-6 EFAs, which leads to inflammation in the body and brain.
In addition to an intake of healthy fats to support the brain, we also need key vitamins and minerals.
Some common deficiencies in children with ADHD include magnesium, zinc, iron and B vitamins. Supplementation with these nutrients in studies have shown decreases in behavioral symptoms for ADHD populations.
Increasing nutrient density with diet changes can address chronic deficiencies and most research indicates these positive changes can have promising results for ADHD.
In addition, we need also consider removing problem foods and food items from the diets of children with ADHD. For example, one study has shown how artificial coloring and sodium benzoate (common ingredients in soft drinks, fruit flavored beverages, and candies) caused significant hyperactivity in a group of children aged 3 to 9 years. In fact, in the study, the entire group of 3-year-olds were affected by the beverage, meaning that every single 3-year-old exhibited hyperactivity after consuming it. This is beyond the discussion on sugar, which has its own inflammatory effects, but pinpoints specifically the harmful results of artificial food coloring and flavoring on the brains of young children.
Studies have also shown some positive results in children with ADHD by going on an elimination diet, that is, removing allergen foods from children’s diets.
While common allergen foods such as wheat, dairy, soy, nuts, and corn can have positive effects for many, there also may be specific foods for each child that may be problematic. From the research it appears to be worth the effort to discover what foods may be problematic for your child. The best way to investigate this is to eliminate potentially problematic foods from the diet for a period of about 3 weeks and then slowly reintroduce foods one a time and monitor your child for any behavioral setbacks.
Some possible diets to consider trying are the Feingold Program which eliminates the artificial additives discussed above. The GAPS diet is a specific diet created to address ADHD as well as other brain related disorders. It follows a very specific protocol and is fairly strict. You can find more about the GAPS diet here and the research behind it. Looking into something like a paleo diet that emphasizes nutrients and eliminates processed and refined foods, as well as foods like grains, dairy, legumes which can be difficult for digestion and health may also be a starting place.
Regardless of what dietary plan resonates with you, making some changes in the direction of increasing nutrition and decreasing inflammatory foods will support children overall in brain health and likely decrease symptoms of ADHD.
It’s unfortunate, but most kids’ favorite foods are loaded with inflammatory ingredients and can be trigger foods for some that may be dealing with symptoms of ADHD, autism, autoimmune disorders or mood related issues.
Marketing strategies target kids with colorful foods, sugary sweets and characters from beloved programs promoting snack products. From frozen waffles, to flavored yogurt snacks, to cereals that are all colors of the rainbow, kids (and their parents) are inundated with messages to buy and consume products that are actually quite harmful.
Commercial breakfast cereals often contain harmful artificial colors and flavors (known to cause hyperactivity), as wells as very high amounts of sugar (inflammatory for the brain and endocrine system). In fact, most packaged goods, what we call processed and refined foods, contain a version of artifical ingredients for coloring, flavor, or preservative, added sugar, and refined food products (like flour). The bottom line is these foods, while tasty, do not offer enough nutrients for a growing brain and body, and actually have harmful effects on health, mood, and behavior!
So let’s take a look at some common kid go-to’s and come up with alternatives that offer more nutrition overall.
1. Let go of boxed cereals.
Try making hot oatmeal for breakfast. Buy plain organic rolled oats and cook according to instructions. You can add in dried fruit, nuts or seeds, and healthy fats for a breakfast that is quick, delicious, and full of good nutrients to start the day.
Blueberry Muffin Oatmeal
Make 1 cup organic rolled oats (follow directions on bag). During cooking, add in 1 TB of flaxseed, hemp seed, or chia seeds and 1 TB of coconut oil, or grassfed butter. Mix in a ¼ cup of frozen or fresh blueberries. Sweeten to taste with maple syrup (start low with the amount of maple syrup. You may be surprised how little is needed for this to taste good). Add cinnamon, nutmeg for added flavor. Serve with organic whole fat milk (recommend coconut milk, grass fed whole fat dairy milk if tolerated, or almond milk). *Fun fact: the blueberries turn this oatmeal blue
Peanut butter Cookie Oatmeal
Make 1 cup of organic rolled oats (follow directions on oat’s package). While cooking add 1 TB of hemp seeds. Add in ¼ cup raisins or currants, and 1 tsp cinnamon. When oats are done cooking, add 1 TB of organic peanut butter (no added sugar!), and then sweeten conservatively with maple syrup. Serve with organic whole fat milk as suggested above.
Cinnamon Crunch Granola
For even quicker, cold and ready breakfast, make a batch of homemade granola for the week and serve with milk as you would eat cereal.
Combine on a baking sheet or tray rolled oats, chopped walnuts, dried currants, coconut flakes, sesame seeds, cinnamon, and pinch of salt baked on low. Stir often to avoid burning. When slightly browned, remove from oven and mix in 1 TB of raw honey. Coat evenly. Allow to cool. (Feel free to experiment with other nuts and seeds like pecans, pumpkin seeds, and dried fruits like unsweetened blueberries or cherries).
2. Let go of snacks like Cheetos, Doritos, and other chips and things*
Look for packaged chips with minimal ingredients and ones that have been cooked with olive oil, coconut oil, or avocado oil. Here is a nice brand.
Consider trail mix with nuts, dried fruit, and coconut flakes an alternative.
Make your own kale chips.
Rinse and chop one bunch of dinosaur kale. Spread evenly onto baking tray, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt, black pepper, and turmeric. Bake at 375 until browning and crispy, stir occasionally.
Red Hot Cashews
Spread cashews evenly on baking tray. Coat with 1 TB melted coconut oil and season liberally with salt, black pepper, turmeric, ginger, and ginger. Bake at 350, stirring occasionally, until browned and toasted.
*Be aware that Cheetos and Doritos and the like contain ingredients that are addicting (MSG) and bypass our natural awareness of satiety by containing high levels of salt, sugar, or fat in flavor and content. It is almost impossible not to overeat with these snacks and it is best to remove them completely from the diet and reestablish normal taste sensations for salty, sweet, and satiety. We need those things, but in natural and healthy forms.
Also, when in the habit of eating these kinds of highly processed foods, we often don’t realize that we are actually in need of water, not food when cravings hit. Always suggest and offer water to your kids when they are asking for things like this and then brainstorm together snacks that are acceptable that have salty, sweet, or spicy flavors that they like.
3. Let go of fast food chicken nuggets and french fries.
Try this baked chicken tenders recipe.
Sweet & Salty Homemade Fries
Look for Japanese sweet potatoes, they are purple skinned and are white inside. Peel and then slice into thin rounds. Place evenly on baking sheet, coat evenly and liberally with coconut oil and salt, black pepper, turmeric for seasoning. Bake at 400 for about 25 minutes, stirring a couple times to avoid burning.
Most fast food dinners can be made from home with much more nutritious ingredients. For the convenience of fast food, consider batch cooking and freezing meals for the week. Making ahead some meatballs to freeze, will provide a healthy, nutrient dense snack or dinner choice for hungry kids. Meatballs can also be a great way to include anti-inflammatory spices and herbs into your diet. Adding in turmeric, black pepper, salt, and fresh thyme can add delicious flavors. Finely chopped fresh cilantro, and lime zest can also make a tasty Pirate Caribbean Meatballs.
Kitchen tools such as the slow cooker, or instant pot (modern pressure cooker) also provide busy families with more options for home-cooked meals. Simple stews with meat, vegetables and broth can cook in slow cookers all day during school and work hours. And the instant pot can be a big time saver for favorites like homemade chili, beans and rice.
The hard part can be committing to making the changes you may realize are important, even necessary to make. However, once, committed, you can look forward to meals and cooking inspiring creativity, experimentation, and more bonding opportunities between family members. Learning together is a powerful scenario for bonding and deepening relationships.
When we can embrace the ongoing education that nutrition and cooking provide then we open up an area of life that has the potential to bring in more vitality, nurturing, and deliciousness than ever before. More than that, the learning process is also a chance to become even more self-aware and self-caring.
When we learn, we also learn what works for each person, and what does not. These individual traits can be honored and respected to highlight values in autonomy, independence and self-knowledge. Children develop strong self-care and self-preservation skills when these values, as well as the value of health, are supported in their environment.
Studies have shown that children diagnosed with ADHD present with nutritional deficiencies more than their peers. This has led researchers to investigate whether specific vitamin supplementation can help relieve symptoms. Nutritional deficiencies that have been studied and have shown to have a positive effect in children include zinc, magnesium, and iron.
Supplementation can be helpful for severe deficiencies, and for the long run, consider expanding your child’s diet to include food sources of these essential minerals. In addition to increasing diet sources of essential vitamins and minerals, healing and supporting gut health will ensure proper absorption from food, so the brain and body will benefit from getting what it needs.
Animal food sources are optimal for those with zinc deficiency. Top food sources for zinc include seafood (especially oysters and shrimp), beef, lamb, spinach, pumpkin seeds, cashews, mushrooms, and beans. Zinc deficiency is highly common in patients with chronic illnesses and brain-related disorders. Some additional symptoms of zinc deficiency include skin rashes, acne, diarrhea, poor motor functioning, chronic infections, and allergies, to name a few.
Magnesium deficiency is a key player behind a myriad of chronic illnesses including asthma, diabetes, migraines, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and heart disease. It is an essential mineral playing a role in every organ of the body (including the brain!). Chronic pain, achiness, and restless leg syndrome can all indicate magnesium deficiency as well.
Include spinach, chard, almonds, black beans, pumpkin seeds, avocado and bananas for magnesium rich food sources. Greens can be easily added to smoothies for eaters that are resistant to leafy textures. Consider also blending greens with eggs to make scrambled veggie eggs. Salted pumpkin seeds can be added to favorite trail mixes or granolas, and try serving banana wheels topped with almond butter!
Remember that with young children the main cause of resistance to food is because it is unfamiliar. Offering new foods 8 -15 times before you decide your child doesn’t like something is recommended. Introducing new foods is only about introducing, never forcing or coercing. Finding the balance between encouraging good nutrition while honoring each child’s autonomy with food is important.
Consider as well, animal products and seafood, as optimal nutritional sources of iron. For vegetarians, it may be useful to frame your child’s diet as a temporary healing diet. For some children with ADHD symptoms or diagnosis, optimizing nutrition as therapy for the time being could be the missing link in their behavior and mood regulation. If you are interested in pursuing a non-medication route in supporting your child’s recovery from ADHD, then it may be important to consider animal products during recovery.
High sources of iron include chicken or beef liver, chicken, beef, turkey, shellfish (oysters and mussels), and halibut, salmon, and tuna.
Using nutrition to increase health and address concerns requires a well-rounded and many layered approach. While increasing nutrients in the diet, it is important to also let go of inflammatory foods that would undermine your health goals. Furthermore, each person will have a unique relationship with food, so we all need to find what works for us, and allow that to evolve as we evolve and grow.
As we discuss brain health, mood, and nutrition, we would be remiss to ignore how these issues can play out in childhood. The impacts from the standard American diet and lifestyle are showing up earlier and earlier in life. Children suffer from a number of health related issues, such as Early-Onset Diabetes, Autoimmune Disorders, Autism, ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder), depression and anxiety. While these are all multifaceted issues, meaning there are likely to be multiple causes and factors involved, nutrition and diet have been shown to play a significant role in reducing symptoms and in some cases, bringing children into full remission from a diagnosis.