Food rarely comes up when we talk about the mind and brain, even though what you eat determines how effectively your brain operates. It is so obvious that it is often overlooked. The most common food errors, like skipping breakfast or self-medicating with food, can sabotage the best of treatment plans.
If you do not eat properly, you can become distracted, impulsive, and restless. You look like you have ADD, even if you do not. Therefore, ADD treatment — like any effort to lead a healthy life — must consider a good diet an essential component of a proper regimen.
Here are 12 food suggestions that you or your child should follow every day. I do.
> BALANCE YOUR DIET. The meaning of "balanced" changes as we learn more. Omega-3s are now part of a balanced diet, as the USDA Food Pyramid itself undergoes reconstruction. Most authorities recommend less starch and flour-based foods than they used to, and more fruits and vegetables. Protein ought to be included in every meal — especially breakfast — if possible. Eat fresh foods, and avoid junk or anything that come in a box, bag, wrapper, package, or tube.
Steer clear of anything with additives or preservatives, as well as trans-fatty acids and high-fructose syrup. Skip foods with ingredients you can't pronounce — long words that usually end in "ite" or "ate."
> GO WITH C. It is best to get vitamin C from fruits and vegetables, since pills are not as effective as vitamin C found in whole foods. Vitamin C helps modulate the synapse action of dopamine, a key neurotransmitter needed in treating ADHD.
> PROTECT YOUR BRAIN. Eat blueberries, grape seed extract, blue-green algae, almonds, cashews, walnuts, broccoli, wild salmon or bluefish, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, meat, cumin, turmeric, spinach, watercress, and avocado, as well as olive oil and flaxseed oil. These foods are premium gasoline for your brain.
> GET TESTED FOR ZINC. Some research suggests a possible correlation between low levels of zinc and the symptoms of ADD. Don't add zinc without the supervision of a doctor. Adding or subtracting minerals indiscriminately from your diet could lead to problems.
> TAKE A GOOD MULTIVITAMIN. Consider taking a daily multivitamin supplement that contains vitamin C, vitamin E, B-12, selenium, and folic acid. A safe way of avoiding vitamin and mineral overload is to take a multivitamin that contains the recommended daily allowance of key vitamins and minerals.
> CURB YOUR SWEET TOOTH. We seem to live on sugar, inviting all kinds of negative health outcomes, from tooth decay to obesity to diabetes to impaired immune function to lethargy to cognitive dulling. The more you cut back on refined sugar, the better.
> WATCH THE CARBS. Refined carbohydrates (which contain hardly any fiber) stimulate the release of dopamine, just as stimulant medications and adrenaline do. This means that people with ADHD get in the habit of turning to carbs to get that dopamine squirt we all love. Beware of that quart of ice cream at midnight, or the extra large Hershey Bar, or even the soda or fruit juice. Obesity awaits. Carbs cause insulin to be dumped into your system. This causes a drop in blood sugar, making you feel sluggish. This can lead to a craving for more carbs.
> DITCH GLUTEN AND DAIRY. Many of my ADHD patients improve on gluten-free diets. At the suggestion of my friend and colleague, Peter Martone, a chiropractor, I tried it myself. It made me feel better, and I lost 20 pounds, to boot. If you were tested for gluten sensitivity, and found that you do not have celiac disease, you may still do better to go gluten-free. Many experts believe that a pure vegan diet is the healthiest. I can't give up cheese, but if you can give up dairy, you might fare better. Try anything that works, as long as it is safe and legal.
> LOOK FOR OTHER FOOD ALLERGIES. Many people with ADHD have undiagnosed food allergies. If these are detected and dealt with, life can change dramatically for the better. It's worth getting tested for food allergies, but make sure to find a reliable allergist. Some "professionals" sell their own proprietary remedies for various "sensitivities." They cost a lot of money but do not do much good.
> DRIVE YOURSELF TO DRINK — water, that is. Water is good for you in many ways. It is estimated that 75 percent of us are chronically dehydrated, which can lead to decreased focus. Water makes up 75 percent of your brain. It's not hard to see that not drinking enough could make your ADD symptoms worse.
> MONITOR EATING HABITS. ADHDers are at greater risk for developing eating disorders than the general public. That's because people with ADHD often turn to food as a source of stimulating conflict. They do battle with food, and find it engrossing. Remember, people with ADHD are always on the lookout for focus, even if it is obtained in negative ways. As unpleasant as bingeing and purging can be, the bulimic cycle is one way to focus. The same goes for anorexia, which takes on a life of its own.
DR. NED HALLOWELL is a practicing psychiatrist and founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health, outside Boston, and in New York City. He is the author of 19 books, including Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People.