Getting the right nutrition for the ADHD brain

Food and your ADHD-diagnosed child – some parents might describe the relationship as “complicated”, “convoluted” or just plain “difficult”. It’s almost not surprising that ADHD is linked to unhealthy dietary habits in children and teenagers – they consume more refined sugars, processed food, soft drinks and instant noodles than children without a neurodevelopment disorder. In the same study, they estimate that about 40% of children with ADHD are fussy eaters. And as a parent, you could also be constantly worrying if your child is getting enough nutrition as their ADHD medication plays havoc with their appetite. 

So what role does nutrition play in ADHD management? There is a considerable amount of research on ADHD and nutrition, particularly surrounding food elimination and nutrient supplementation. Overall, the effect of nutrition on ADHD symptoms and behaviour has been small – some people respond to dietary changes and their symptoms improve, and for others, there’s no significant improvement. However, nutrition, along with other lifestyle factors such as regular exercise and sleep, forms an integral part of a holistic ADHD treatment plan and a healthy lifestyle. 

How nutrition affects the brain 

The brain cells, the myelin sheath (which insulates the axons of the brain cells) and the neurotransmitters (such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) all need nutrition for proper functioning. 

The nutrition your child needs 

There is no prescribed ADHD diet, however certain foods may be better for people with ADHD. 

Protein

 Proteins trigger the brain’s neurotransmitters, which carry signals from one brain cell to another. It affects your child’s alertness and keeps blood sugar levels steady. Protein-rich foods include: 

• meat 

• poultry 

• fish and shellfish 

• eggs 

• nuts 

• beans and lentils

Tip: Kickstart your child’s day with some protein for breakfast: a cup of milk, an egg, or a serving of cheese or meat. 

Carbohydrates

The glycaemic index (GI) is the rate at which sugar from a particular food enters the cells of the body. A high GI causes sugar to empty quickly from the blood into the cells, and low GI foods release a steady supply of sugar, which helps the ADHD-diagnosed person to control behaviour. Food with the best brain-friendly GI’s include: 

Fruits: the fibre in fruit slows the absorption of fruit sugar, e.g. apples, cherries, oranges, and grapes. (The acid in oranges and grapefruit interacts with the absorption of short-acting stimulant ADHD medications and should not be taken concurrently.) 

Dairy products: Milk and plain yoghurt 

Cereals and grains: oatmeal, bran and high-fibre cereals and pastas 

Vegetables and legumes: soybeans, kidney beans, and lentils 

Fats

The brain needs two essential polyunsaturated fatty acids to function properly: omega-6 and omega-3. They allow the cell membranes to transport nutrients. Children with ADHD have been found to have generally lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids compared to neurotypical children; the lower their omega-3 levels, the more learning and behavioural problems the children with ADHD have. 

These fatty acids can be found in salmon, tuna, pumpkin seeds, eggs and flaxseed and canola oils. 

Micronutrients

Whether children have ADHD or not, iron and zinc deficiencies can cause mental impairment. There is evidence that people with ADHD may have reduced levels of vitamin D, zinc, iron and magnesium, all of which have roles in neurologic function, including neurotransmitter synthesis. Erratic eating habits and decreased appetite due to stimulant medications, could also put your ADHD-diagnosed child at risk for marginal micronutrient deficiency. 

The following micronutrients all affect ADHD behaviour and symptoms: 

Iron is necessary for making dopamine. A small study showed that iron stores were low in 84 percent of children with ADHD, compared to 18 percent of a control group. Iron can be found in beef, liver and kidney beans. 

Zinc plays an important role in neurologic functioning. Zinc can be found in meat, shellfish, beans and nuts. 

Vitamin B6 increases alertness; deficiency causes irritability and fatigue. Vitamin B6 can be found in eggs, fish, peanuts and potatoes. 

Vitamin C is necessary for the brain to make neurotransmitters. Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits, broccoli, blackcurrants, brussels sprouts and bell peppers. 

Magnesium is involved in various enzymatic reactions; it’s necessary for fatty acid synthesis and it binds serotonin and dopamine to their receptors. It can be found in pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach, and peanuts. 

Vitamin D is a neuroactive steroid that is important for normal brain development. Vitamin D can be sourced from sunlight, and in smaller amounts from fatty fish, beef liver, egg yolks and fortified foods. 

To meet the recommended daily nutritional requirements, your child may need a multivitamin. Supplementation could improve your child’s overall well-being, especially if there’s a deficiency. 

Foods to avoid:

People with ADHD could benefit from limiting these foods: 

Simple/ refined carbohydrates: Sugar is considered a simple/ refined carbohydrate, which also affects blood sugar levels. This includes white rice, white pasta, white flour and potatoes. 

Sugar: Sugar affects blood glucose levels, which can affect energy levels. Although research surrounding sugar and ADHD symptoms is inconsistent, limiting sugar intake may reduce the risk of diabetes, obesity, and tooth decay. 

Caffeine: Small amounts may improve concentration levels, and it can also intensify the effects of ADHD medication. It’s advised that children and teenagers should avoid tea, coffee and cola-based cooldrinks completely. 

Artificial additives: The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) recommend that children avoid these artificial additives (colouring, flavours, and preservatives) as it may interfere with hormones, growth, and development. 

Allergens: There is some research that claims that removing potential allergens, such as gluten, wheat, and soy, can improve focus and reduce hyperactivity. 

As a parent, you are molding your child’s eating habits – your food preferences, feeding style, how stressful mealtimes are, and whether you, yourself, are a fussy eater, all affect your child’s eating habits. By establishing stress-free mealtimes, with healthy food that the whole family enjoys, you are encouraging healthy food preferences that will last your child well into adulthood. 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which sends messages between nerve cells in the nervous system. It affects certain physical and behavioural functions such as learning, motivation and mood.  

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