You Are What You Eat: The Role of Nutrition and ADHD
First in a series
By Susan McCrossin
Our culture has an odd relationship with food. A trip to the grocery store shows shelves stocked full with labels that read Gluten-free, Dairy-free, allergy avoidant, Paleo, and more. Add in learning issues to this mix and the result can be downright confusing. If you, or someone in your family, has been diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, or another learning challenge, you’ve probably been given lots of well meaning advice on what foods to eat, what foods to avoid, which foods to eat together, or to never combine.
A 2011 randomized controlled trial published in the Lancet, showed that children with ADHD who eliminated processed food showed a significant decrease in ADHD symptoms. When the foods were reintroduced, symptoms returned and became more intense.
Over the past two decades, I’ve advised my clients on some common sense approaches that have made a huge difference in supporting their overall treatment plan. Here’s what we know – eating habits don’t cause learning issues, but one cannot deny that the philosophy of “you are what you eat,” can have a positive impact on living with ADHD, ADD, and other learning challenges. The good news is that you don’t need to take out a second mortgage to afford an ADHD-friendly food regimen. It may take some trial and error, but you can easily find out what foods and supplements work for you.
With so many choices, what are some simple foods to embrace, and which to avoid?
My simple rule with what to avoid? Anything artificially colored, flavored, overly processed, or that contains a laundry list of ‘ingredients’ that sound more like they belong on a chemistry lab than in your kitchen.
Power up with Protein. Foods rich in protein produce neurotransmitters, the chemicals released by our brain cells for good communication, and keeping you on an even energy level. Proteins help steady our blood sugar levels, which can lessen symptoms of hyperactivity, mood swings, and distractibility. As much as you might not want to admit it, our mothers are right. Breakfast, especially one rich in lean protein, can give you the best start to the day. For vegetarians or vegans, there are plenty of protein-rich alternatives – try this recipe for a smoothie that is delicious, but also one that will help to keep you connected and balanced:
- 1 cup of your choice of milk
- Frozen fruit with no added fruit
- Handful of greens
- 1 tbls fresh avocado
- 1 ripe banana
I like this smoothie with a slice of multigrain bread and nut butter for a great start to your or your child’s day.
Put your meals on the balance bar. For children who are taking medications for ADHD symptoms, the importance of meals that include vegetables, complex carbohydrates, fruit, and again, our friendly protein, can be seen in behavior that is more self-regulated and consistent.
An easy to follow plate chart can be posted on the fridge, or given to your child, to encourage him or her to be front and center in their food planning, a tool that is one to be developed for life. It has been shown that children who help prepare healthy meals are more likely to choose healthy food options over ones that are filled with preservatives, fillers, high fructose corn syrup, or which are overly processed.
It’s a Family Affair. Children on the learning challenge spectrum already face a sense of isolation and social anxiety. Many of these children experience periods of loneliness in school, and with their siblings. Food limitations can be another area of seclusion; if the family takes part in a healthier approach, not only will the ADHD child benefit, but so will the entire crew!
Keep it Local. The local food movement has made healthy food options as close as your neighborhood. By keeping your food choices local and seasonal, you’re reducing stale and over-processed products. Head to your local farmer’s market, by car, or on foot, to take advantage of the bountiful harvest time – endless varieties of tomatoes, sweet corn, small batch cheeses and artisan breads are plentiful this time of the year. Farmer’s markets are also a fun way to encourage trying new foods in a lively social setting.
The bottom line? Eating a well-balanced, healthy diet rich will buoy up a ADHD-supportive regimen that also includes plenty of exercise, social interaction, and kinesthetic support.