Researchers have been investigating the links between diet and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention-deficit disorder (ADD) for years. Unfortunately, the jury’s still out.
Scientists may still be debating, but many experts — and parents — say altering dietary habits is definitely worth a try, the goal being to help your child's brain work better and reduce symptoms like restlessness and lack of focus. Studies have shown some children are more susceptible to diet than others, and it is well established that a healthy, nutritious diet can have broad effects on mood and behavior for both children and adults.
The best place to start is to lower sugar intake, says Sanford Silverman, a licensed psychologist and director of the Center for Attention Deficit and Learning Disorders in Scottsdale, Arizona. He has worked with adults and children with ADHD and ADD at his center for three decades.
Like much of the research around diet and this condition, there's disagreement about whether sugar causes ADD or ADHD directly, Silverman says. “The consensus is it really doesn't — but I can tell you that it doesn't help. When you see a kid or adult who's taking sugar, what I've seen is that it exacerbates ADD symptoms. It's not causing ADD. But it's definitely not helping it.”
To get a sense for whether certain foods are a problem, cut them out of your or your child’s diet for a period of 2 to 3 weeks. Then, gradually reintroduce foods, one item at a time. Watch carefully for mood and behavioral changes as you make these changes — if they improve or worsen, you’ll have found a dietary culprit and should add it to a list of foods to avoid in the future. (For more tips on creating a “washout” diet for ADD or ADHD to test food sensitivities, see a report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
More thoughts from Silverman on tailoring an ADD or ADHD diet:
Pack on the protein, especially at breakfast and lunch. Try eggs, nuts, beans, lentils, Greek yogurt, and lean meats and fish, such as salmon. Not only will these uber-healthy foods provide a multitude of health benefits in the form of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, poly- and monounsaturated fats, and oodles of other nutrients and antioxidants, but the protein they contain will boost brain power and help regulate blood sugar throughout the day. “With protein you can prevent those surges in blood sugar that cause more overactivity,” Silverman says. That’s “going to give you alertness and help neurotransmitters.”
Avoid sugars — no, really. Sugary cereals, juice boxes and drinks with high fructose corn syrup, and white bread are the equivalent of a mood time bomb, producing a sugar high that is rapidly followed by an energy crash. This rapid fluctuation in blood glucose levels, Silverman says, increases hyperactivity and irritability.
Plus, there is evidence that “children experience more pronounced response to glucose overload than adults,” Silverman says, meaning they're more affected by sugar than adults are. Since adults and children with ADD and ADHD both have more, and more rapid, shifts in mood and emotional states than those without the condition — a characteristic called emotional lability — sugar only compounds the problem. “If you're giving them things that are going to exacerbate” emotionally lability, Silverman says, “then you're going to see it more.”
Watch out for poor appetite. Common ADD and ADHD medications can decrease appetite. And some adults and children with ADD or ADHD are too keyed up to take the time — they “don't even want to sit down and eat,” Silverman says. That’s a problem, he says, because “poor appetite is certainly going to exacerbate the ADD.”
Good nutrition is even more important when appetite is low. For both children and adults, “it's particularly important for them not to have just sugary foods because they're not eating as much.”
Eat for your brain. Oatmeal and other whole grains not only contain fiber, which helps keep blood sugar steady, but also “keep your brain fed longer,” Silverman says. “They're a source of vitamin E, B, potassium, zinc — so you're getting better nutrition.” Meanwhile, high-antioxidant fruits like strawberries and blueberries “have been linked in studies to improved memory and brain functioning, concentration, and short-term memory,” he says.
Go low glycemic, and warm. A low-glycemic diet decreases blood sugar levels, which can have dramatic effects on mood and energy. To go low glycemic, incorporate the elements mentioned above, such as lean protein and fiber in the form of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Meanwhile, warm foods made with high-fiber vegetables, beans, and lentils can be calming and restorative — there’s a reason they’re called comfort foods! To benefit from these calming effects, incorporate stews, soups, and warm salads into you and your child’s diet.
March 25, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN