ADHD is a mental health disorder that can cause above normal levels of hyperactive and impulsive behaviors. Individuals affected may have trouble focusing their attention on a single task or sitting still for long periods. ADHD is one of the most common mental health disorders in the US, with 15 million individuals diagnosed. At this time, 1-10 children between the ages of 5-17 are diagnosed, with symptoms starting as early as age 3. The exact cause of ADHD is still unknown; contributing factors to the diagnosis of ADHD include genetics, environmental factors such as lead exposure, developmental factors, and maternal drug/alcohol use and/or smoking during pregnancy along with premature birth.
Symptoms and how children are affected
Symptoms of ADHD include having trouble focusing/concentrating on tasks, forgetting to complete things one set out to do, becoming easily distracted, having trouble sitting still, and interrupting people when they are speaking. These symptoms affect children by making them more likely to experience classroom struggles, increased accidents/injuries, poor self-esteem, difficulty interacting with their peers, and an increased risk for delinquent behavior as well as drug or alcohol abuse. Children with ADHD are also more likely to have other conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, learning disabilities, and sleep disorders.
Treatment and the role nutrition plays
At this time there is no curable treatment for ADHD. The aim is to reduce symptoms with the use of medication, behavior therapy, or a combination of the two. When it comes to managing ADHD symptoms, it’s important to consider lifestyle changes along with medication management. Nutrition can play a big role in managing symptoms of ADHD. Research has stated that you are 25-35% less likely to experience mood disorders if you are eating a “cleaner” diet made up of more “whole foods” that include lean meats, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Children with ADHD are more likely to experience adverse reactions to foods containing artificial dyes/colorings, additives, sugar/artificial sweeteners, cow’s milk, and wheat. Being educated on what foods and beverages contain these specific ingredients, and how to effectively limit/avoid these ingredients from the diet, have in some cases been proven effective for children when it comes to managing symptoms of ADHD.
A balanced diet to promote brain power
When it comes to individual macronutrients, parents and children should understand portion control and the appropriate amounts to have at each meal. Each macronutrient has a role in the body when it comes to brain function. Protein triggers alertness in the brain and helps to keep blood sugars steady. Carbohydrates affect blood sugar and mood; however, all carbohydrate sources are not created equally. It’s important that parents and children are shown what types of carbohydrates are best consumed and understand that a diet high in sugar can produce negative effects on the brains of children with ADHD. Similarly, although fat makes up 60% of the brain, it’s very important to understand what types of fats are better for mental health. Consuming unsaturated fats – as well as Omega 3 fatty acids – plays an important role in brain health. At this time only 1% of children meet the requirements of the food guide pyramid. Education is needed more than ever in a time where our diet mainly consists of processed meats, fast food, high fat dairy products, and sugary beverages.
ADHD and Sugar
An average person consumes around 120 pounds of added sugar a year. Sugar is hidden in many products including salad dressing, canned vegetables, and ketchup. When it comes to sugar intake with a child with ADHD, negative effects are often seen. Blood sugar imbalances are often linked to inattention and hyperactivity. Low blood sugars levels can increase your child’s chances of becoming irritable and stressed, worsening ADHD symptoms. Overall, we should be limiting our intake of added sugars to 10% of total calories in a day.
How a Dietitian can help
When it comes to making dietary and lifestyle changes, often times it can be overwhelming. Meeting with a Registered Dietitian to work on changes in your child’s dietary habits is essential. A dietitian can help with making healthy meal and snack recommendations that will supply a healthy balance of nutrients to your child’s diet. Understanding food labels and ingredients is important as it’s tricky to decode what those ingredients mean and how they can affect your child’s behavior.
How you as parents can help
As a parent, it’s good to set a positive example for your child when it comes to healthy eating habits. Make sure to have healthy foods available and in sight at all times. Talk to your children about why they should be eating certain foods and how it affects them in school, at home, and in their everyday lives. You can even get your child more interested in food just by having them help out in the kitchen – children are much more likely to eat a food that they have helped prepare!
In the end, it’s about small changes that add up over time. Becoming educated on how nutrition affects your child’s ADHD symptoms is the first step. Healthy habits are not created overnight – but take them one step at a time, and change is sure to come!