Diet and nutrition can make a significant difference in the lives of children and adults who have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD).
Deficiencies in certain types of foods can worsen ADHD symptoms in children and adults. An ADHD diet that ensures you're getting adequate levels of the right foods optimizes brain function.
Protein. Foods rich in protein — lean beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, soy, and low-fat dairy products — can have beneficial effects on ADD symptoms. Protein-rich foods are used by the body to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals released by brain cells to communicate with each other. Protein can prevent surges in blood sugar, which increase hyperactivity.
“Because the body makes brain-awakening neurotransmitters when you eat protein, start your day with a breakfast that includes it,” says Laura Stevens, M.S., a nutritionist at Purdue University and author of 12 Effective Ways to Help Your ADD/ADHD Child. “Don’t stop there. Look for ways to slip in lean protein during the day, as well.”
Balanced Meals. Faye Berger Mitchell, a registered dietician from Bethesda, Maryland, has a nine-year-old daughter who received an ADHD diagnosis two years ago. While her daughter takes stimulants to control her ADHD symptoms, Mitchell concluded that a pill is not enough. She finds that when her daughter eats a well-balanced diet, including vegetables, complex carbohydrates, fruits, and plenty of protein, her behavior tends to be more consistently under control. Ned Hallowell, M.D., founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health, in Sudbury, Massachusetts, and New York City, advises all of his ADHD patients to think about their plates when preparing a meal. Half of the plate, he recommends, should be filled with fruits or vegetables, one-fourth with a protein, and one-fourth with carbohydrates.
Hallowell also advocates eating several servings of whole grains, which are rich in fiber, each day to prevent blood sugar levels from spiking and then plummeting.
“Many diets are deficient in key vitamins, minerals, and fats that may improve attention and alertness,” says Richard Brown, M.D., author of How to Use Herbs, Nutrients, and Yoga in Mental Health Care. He suggests that children and adults who have been diagnosed with ADHD be tested for nutritional deficiencies.
“Supplements and diet can correct nutrient shortfalls that exacerbate ADHD symptoms,” adds Brown.
Zinc, Iron, and Magnesium. Zinc regulates the neurotransmitter dopamine and may make methylphenidate more effective by improving the brain’s response to dopamine. Low levels of this mineral correlate with inattention. Iron is also necessary for making dopamine. One small study, published in the December 2004 issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, showed ferritin levels (a measure of iron stores) to be low in 84 percent of ADHD children compared to 18 percent of the control group. Low iron levels correlate with cognitive deficits and severe ADHD. Like zinc, magnesium is used to make neurotransmitters involved in attention and concentration, and it has a calming effect on the brain.
All three minerals are found in lean meats, poultry, seafood, nuts, soy, and fortified cereals. While diet is the safest way to increase all three mineral levels, a multivitamin/multimineral with iron will ensure that you or your child gets the daily reference value (DRV) of these minerals.
B Vitamins. Studies, like one published in the March 2006 issue of Magnesium Research, suggest that giving children who have low levels of B vitamins a supplement improved some IQ scores (by 16 points) and reduced aggression and antisocial behavior. “Vitamin B-6 seems to increase the brain’s levels of dopamine, which improves alertness,” says Brown.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Omega-3s are believed to be important in brain and nerve cell function. One study, conducted at Sweden's Göteborg University and published in the April 2008 issue of Journal of Attention Disorders, concluded that daily doses of omega-3s — found in cold-water, fatty fish, such as sardines, tuna, and salmon — reduced ADHD symptoms by 50 percent. Dr. Sven Ostlund followed a group of ADHD children aged 8-18 who took fish oil daily. Within six months, there was a noticeable decrease in ADHD symptoms in 25 percent of the children.
Another study, published in Nutrition Journal in February 2008, showed that omega-3s tend to break down more readily in the bodies of patients with ADHD than in those without the condition. “ADHDers who have low blood levels of omega-3s will show the biggest improvement in mental focus and cognitive function,” says Brown. “Sometimes the change is dramatic.”
John Ratey, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, recommends that you choose a supplement that contains more EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) than DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
Another approach is to consider removing certain types of additives from your child’s diet that have been found to cause many types of problems in people of all ages. Most of them are made from petroleum and can affect any system of the body. The 2007 British study by McCann et al impressed the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) so much that the AAP published an article saying “…a trial of a preservative-free, food coloring-free diet is a reasonable intervention.” An editorial in the British Medical Journal (May 2008) argued that removing dyes and preservatives should be a standard part of ADHD treatment.
Which foods and additives are eliminated?
- Artificial food coloring (petrochemical dyes)
- Artificial flavors and fragrances
- Three preservatives
- Artificial sweeteners
- Foods and products containing salicylate