Staying Focused with ADHD

How diet affects ADHD

by SHFamily | Wed, May 10, 2017

by Siobhan Brown

More people are suffering from food allergies than ever before. There is a large volume of credible evidence that suggests this could be due, in part, to an increase in additives within our food. The old sayings "you are what you eat," and "an apple a day," that parents and practitioners have been preaching for decades, is solidly rooted in fact.

Paying attention

This is certainly evident within our schools, where our children’s ability to focus is constantly put to the test and often reliant on what is served for breakfast before they arrive. Without the proper fuel, children will not have the energy to retain, or put into practice, new information learned in the classroom. Children who suffer from problems related to attention and/or concentration may be particularly susceptible to behavioral changes that can accompany a diet lacking a proper nutritional balance.

“There is a lot of research that backs up diet as a key ingredient to improving focus and concentration with children who have ADHD ... diets can bring about changes in mood which are also affected by hormonal changes or coping strategies when encountered with everyday school expectations for children.”

Regina Schaufelberger, Physical Therapist and Sensory Integration Specialist at the Essential Learning Group (ELG).

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is usually diagnosed in childhood and can impact an individual’s behavior into adulthood. The disorder manifests in several ways as “a condition with symptoms such as inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) approximately 11 percent of school-age kids have the disorder.” (WebMD)

This number relates to the number of children identified, however, many adults who exhibit behaviours like procrastination, inattentiveness and disorganization come to be properly diagnosed and treated in adulthood. Often an adult will seek help when they realize personal relationships and work performance are suffering.

More than just behavior

Sometimes incorrectly, parents assume that behavioral issues and outbursts their children exhibit are the result of temperament, overstimulation or are the natural by-products of an overtired child. While these may be contributing factors, equally important is what foods the child has eaten that day, and whether they are getting the right foods to nourish their growing minds and bodies.

“Certain foods have been identified as contributing to ADHD-oriented behaviors, such as fast food, red meat, processed meats, potato chips and other similar snack chips, high fat dairy products and so drinks. These are the types of foods that should be slowly dialed down in the diet of a child with ADHD." 

Jill Castle, MS, RDN and author of A Healthy ADHD Diet For Kids.

Children who suffer from disorders that affect concentration especially benefit from eating a clean diet filled with nutrient dense foods that come from vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, and whole grains.

The family connection

Families that eat together may have an easier time encouraging healthy eating habits by modeling positive behavior at the table and discussing good food choices. It can be a challenge to come together at mealtime however, when family schedules do not coincide or one parent is traveling. Fast-paced environments are a normal part of a busy family life, and sometimes it’s difficult to make sure our children are eating nutritiously balanced foods.

When possible start out positively by serving a family breakfast free of distractions. A nutritious breakfast enjoyed as a family will set the tone of the day.

“Food fuels the brain as well as the body, so eating a healthy breakfast is important so kids will have maximum mental clarity and focus to start the day and won’t be distracted by hunger pains.”

Carrie Jones, Director of Counseling Services at Community Center Shanghai.

She goes on to say, “Nutrition not only impacts us physically, but also helps us regulate our thought processes and emotions which in turn strongly influence our behavior.”

Convenience isn’t always key

When managing multiple school pick ups/drop-offs as well as the schedule of a spouse who travels for business, convenience foods become an attractive option. Foods that seem quick, and packaged in easily transportable boxes or bags, are often the foods that are filled with refined sugars, providing a quick energy high, followed by a crash that can hit before the school bell rings.

“A sensible approach to nutrition for children with ADHD is the same recommended for all children: eat a diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthful unsaturated fats, and good sources of protein. Go easy on unhealthy saturated and trans-fats, rapidly digested carbohydrates, and fast food. Balance healthy eating with plenty of physical activity." 

Psychologist Mireia Nadal, from My Therapist.

To ensure children have the right foods that will provide sustained energy throughout the day, Lamei Yeung, Certified Nutrition and Health Coach suggests providing a wide assortment of foods from various food groups. “A nutritious meal is also a combination of the three food groups: carbs (whole grains, veggies and fruits), proteins (lean meats, fish, dairy) and healthy fats (avocado, healthy olive oil and nuts). Every meal should include these in order to provide a balanced diet.”

For those mornings when time is not on our side, eating pure and healthy can be done as quickly as serving convenience foods. Instead of opening a box of pop tarts, families could enjoy fresh blueberries and yogurt or strawberries with instant oatmeal. Mangoes, banana and a spoonful of peanut butter can be thrown into a blender with soy milk and ice, for even the most finicky eaters on the go.

Knowledge is power

The first step parents can take to help support their children with ADHD is to take some time looking in their pantries, cupboards and fridges. Carefully read the ingredients to ensure there are no dyes or additives and check sugar content and food preservatives found in beverages such as fruit juice. It can help if a child’s health care practitioner is included in decisions regarding health and nutrition of children who suffer from ADHD.

Education about healthy eating at predictable times will help parents better support their children so that they don’t have to solely rely on medications. Many medications can act as an appetite suppressant and often times children who take these medications do not feel fully hungry until later in the day, when the effects of the medication have worn out and school is over. As important as timing medications with food, is timing when food is served. Offering three snacks and three meals ensures that children are receiving wholesome foods within a set timeframe. The importance of scheduling should not be overlooked. As with most things, children thrive on predictability and consistency.

Set an example

A proper diet is incredibly important and can have a powerful impact on our school-aged children’s ability to perform in the classroom. “Healthy eating is key as it will provide children not only with well balanced meals but will also help them be more well rounded in developmental areas: cognitive, speech, language, motor and sensory,” says Schaufelberger.

In our busy expat lives, sometimes convenience and accessibility takes precedent over proper nutrition for ourselves and our little ones. This is especially true when both parents are working. Home cooked meals take time and preparation and with so many restaurants offering comfort food at a discounted price it’s often easier to just order off a menu or send children to school with a piece of toast to eat in the car.

Many schools offer a morning snack and good nutrition is often provided in international schools. But education on healthy food choices starts at home and is supported when parents model healthy eating. By providing children with access to healthy foods, not only are we giving them the best opportunity to perform better at school, but we are giving them choices today that will affect their health and lifestyles long after they move out on their own.

Yeung makes a good argument for giving our children the gift of our love through food and proper nutritional education .“I strongly believe in the famous quote ‘you are what you eat.’ A person eating fresh, food prepared with love, will feel very different in comparison to a person eating processed foods full of preservatives which are prepared in factories. I feel very passionate about homemade food of good quality ingredients, because it gives our children good energy which is the fuel of life.”

So, what food items would you look to include in your pantry? Look out for our upcoming guide to the Top 4 ADHD-Friendly Foods to Include and Avoid.