It’s a scenario I see in my office regularly: A parent brings their child in for an evaluation for attention deficit disorder (ADD) because they or the child’s teacher have noticed that the child is distracted, has trouble concentrating and is having behavioral issues.
I ask questions about symptoms and behavior, and sure enough, the reports of inattentiveness, fidgeting and moodiness are suggestive of ADD. However, when I dig deeper and start inquiring into the child’s diet, a different picture begins to emerge.
“What does Johnny normally have for breakfast?” I ask mom or dad.
“Well, usually some sugary cereal or a pastry…” they reply.
What this means is that mid-morning, Johnny gets hungry because his breakfast wasn’t filling. His blood sugar drops because the junk carbs that rushed into his blood at breakfast are now all used up and he has “brain fog” and a hard time concentrating. Meanwhile, his brain tells his body, “I need more fuel.” So it sends a signal to his adrenal glands to pump out stress hormones, which squeeze some of the stored fuel out of the liver to feed his hungry brain.
But these stress hormones get Johnny hyped up, so he starts to fidget. He looks out the window because he’s bored and his stress hormone-filled body tells him, “Gotta move!” But the teacher says, “Gotta sit!” While his body sits in the classroom, his mind is already at recess. Because his brain is out of biochemical balance so is his behavior, and he pokes the kid sitting next to him.
Even worse, many times it turns out that Johnny goes from his sugary breakfast to a junk food snack to a lunch full of fake fats, white flour and refined carbs, and this cycle repeats itself all day long. No wonder he can’t concentrate!
All too often, I find that my small, distracted patients are suffering not from ADD but instead from NDD — Nutrition Deficit Disorder. Many parents underestimate the degree to which food can affect how their child learns, behaves and feels. The brain, more than any other organ, is affected, for better or worse, by what we eat. If you put mostly junk food into a child’s brain, the result is going to be junk behavior, junk learning and a junk mood.
Of course, not all cases of ADD can be managed with diet alone, and sometimes medication is warranted. But in my experience, many children described as having ADD lose this tag once their NDD is treated. It’s important to work closely with your pediatrician to discern what is appropriate for your child — but good nutrition is always a good place to start.
AN EASY WAY TO REMEMBER SMART FOODS
Go fish, go blue, go green and go nuts!
Nourish your child’s brain with smart foods like seafood, whole-grain carbs, quality protein, greens, berries and nuts — while avoiding nutritionally “dumb” foods like overly processed refined carbs, hydrogenated fats and too much sugar — and you’ll grow a brain with a healthy biochemical balance that finds it easier to focus.
Oceans of recent research shows that omega-3 fats make brains healthier. The brain is 60 percent fat, and children need a right-fat diet, not a low-fat diet. The body uses omega-3 fats to make cell membranes, to make myelin (the insulation around nerves) and to help neurotransmitters function at optimal levels. In the past few years several studies showed that children diagnosed with ADD who were given omega-3 supplements, especially DHA, improved their attention and learning.
The body cannot make these essential fatty acids, so it is important for growing brains to get adequate amounts of these smart fats from food. Fish like wild salmon, tuna and other cold-water fish are great sources, or add a quality fish oil supplement to your child’s diet.
Blueberries are a great brain food. The deep blue skin of the blueberry is full of flavonoids, especially an antioxidant called anthocyanin that helps keep both growing and aging brains healthy.
While the best sources of folate are green leafy vegetables, other excellent sources are lentils, kidney beans, avocados, chickpeas and artichokes.
Walnuts and ground flaxseed are excellent sources of omega-3s and should be included in any brain-healthy diet. Raw nuts are one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat. They are high in protein, healthy fats, fiber, vitamin E, calcium and many other vitamins and minerals. Go nuts!
Bill Sears, M.D., is a father of eight and the author of 42 books on family health, including The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood and The NDD Book. A practicing pediatrician for over 40 years, he is an Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. Dr. Sears is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and a fellow of the Royal College of Pediatricians (RCP).