For families dealing with ADHD, nutrition concerns or questions may arise. Although there is not clear evidence for diet modifications that can treat the cause of ADHD, there are nutritional guidelines that can affect symptoms and accompanying behaviors.
- Meal Patterning: There is a reason why there are traditionally 3 meals a day. During the day, our body’s physiology requires periods of being fed followed by periods of activity (physical and/or mental). In order to best fuel physical and mental tasks, we need to ensure regular, balanced meals for our kids. This means no skipping breakfast or dinner. Snacks should also be scheduled and finite. Grazing all day can decrease appetite for more nutritious foods at mealtimes and can lead to overeating less nutritious snack foods. Proper meal patterning also helps keep energy stable throughout the day.
- Protein, Fiber, and Healthy Fats: These three nutrition components are key to balancing blood sugar. Our brain and red blood cells use glucose as primary fuel, so it is important to keep that fuel running steady without peaks and valleys that affect energy and mood. Protein, fiber, and fat all slow gastric emptying compared to a meal of simple carbs, which means sugar is digested and absorbed into the blood stream at a slower rate. Also, protein food sources are building blocks for neurotransmitters involved in all brain signaling. And finally, healthy fats like omega-3s are used for developing brain and other nervous system tissues.
- Reduce Refined Sugar (and anything else that you notice exacerbates problem behaviors): Refined sugar tends to provide quick, drastic bursts of energy when consumed alone and/or in large quantities. Often following the energy burst is a crash, since the sugar is quickly used up from the bloodstream and so is the energy. For kids, a little sugar can go a long way since their systems are smaller. Consider things like cereals, sweet beverages, and of course candy and desserts. Try to avoid keeping sugary foods and drinks in the house.
- Side Effects from Medication: Some ADHD medications have a side effect of decreasing appetite. I have worked with kids on these medications who report they “forget to eat” because their appetite is so impacted. This can lead to weight loss, or in some cases, weight gain because the kids end up overeating junk food later in the day. To remedy this, act as a meal and snack advocate for your kid. Make sure you put the food in front of them and encourage them to eat, since they may not seek it out themselves. It may be easier for them to drink something nutritious like a smoothie, or eat a nutrient-dense bar such as a Clif Bar or Larabar when they don’t have much of an appetite.
- Compulsive Decisions: Depending on how your child responds to ADHD treatment, he or she may still struggle with compulsive behaviors. When presented with junk food, they might go overboard, or they might seek out unhealthy food. Try to educate your kids as much as possible about the importance of nutrition in settings where they are not faced with snap decisions. That way, they will hopefully remember to make good decisions. Be a role model for them by stocking the house with healthy options and eating the way you hope for them to eat.
For more nutrition guidance related to ADHD, click here to make an appointment with one of our registered dietitians or call 877-486-4140.