The right foods and supplements can sharpen focus and regulate mood.
Doctors and ADD experts rarely talk with parents about managing their child’s ADD symptoms through diet. This is a mistake, says Ned Hallowell, M.D., author of Delivered from Distraction, because the quality of a child’s diet determines how effectively his brain operates. Poor nutrition can cause a child to become distracted, impulsive, and restless. “The treatment of ADD must include diet as an essential component of a proper regimen,” says Hallowell. Here are tips on improving ADD symptoms by improving diet:
Beef Up Your Protein Levels
It is more difficult for a child to pay attention or regulate mood when he’s not getting enough protein, says Vincent J. Monastra, Ph.D., author of Parenting Children with ADHD: 10 Lessons That Medicine Cannot Teach. Foods rich in protein are used to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals released by our brain cells to communicate with each other. Protein can also prevent surges in blood sugar, which increases hyperactivity. “Because the body makes brain-awakening neurotransmitters when you eat protein, it’s a good idea to start your day with a breakfast that includes it,” says Monastra. Common protein sources include beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, and dairy products.
Take Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Found in cold-water, fatty fish, such as sardines, tuna, and salmon, omega-3s are believed to be important in brain and nerve cell function. Omega-3s increase the level of dopamine in the brain. While omega-3 fatty acids seem to improve anyone’s mental focus, the compounds may be especially helpful to those with ADHD. One study, done in 2003, showed that omega-3s tend to break down more readily in the bodies of patients with ADHD than in those without the condition. Another study, from 2004, suggested that ADD children were more likely to have low blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids than those with no symptoms. Hallowell, founder of the Hallowell Centers for ADHD, recommends that his patients take omega-3 supplements, and notes that “it seems to help with mental focus, not hyperactivity or impulsivity.”
Mind Your Minerals
Deficiencies of several minerals—zinc, iron, and magnesium—can worsen symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Zinc is involved in the regulation of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control mood. One study showed that zinc combined with ADD medication—methylphenidate, specifically—improved symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. Zinc is found in beef, turkey, chicken, pork, lamb, oysters, and beans.
Magnesium is involved in hundreds of enzyme activities. “Among the substances that are developed from magnesium are the myelin sheath that surrounds the brain cells and the neurotransmitters involved in attention and concentration,” says Monastra. Magnesium is found in meats, nuts, soybeans, and spinach.
The latest research suggests that low levels of iron can worsen ADHD symptoms in children with the condition. A 2004 study found that 84 percent of children with ADHD had significantly lower levels of iron, compared with 18 percent of kids without the condition. Iron plays an important role in the brain, affecting production of the key neurotransmitter, dopamine. If you suspect your child has low levels of iron, talk with your doctor about testing him. Diet, not supplements, is the safest way to increase your child’s iron levels.
Balance Your Diet
Hallowell encourages parents of ADD children to visualize their plates when preparing a meal. Half of the plate, he recommends, should be filled with fruits and vegetables, one-fourth with a protein, and one-fourth with carbohydrates. This combination will control swings in behavior caused by hunger or a shortfall of a particular nutrient. In addition to the balanced plate, Hallowell advocates eating several servings of whole grains each day, to prevent blood-sugar levels from spiking and later plummeting, and cutting back on foods that contain dyes and excess sugar. Several studies have suggested that artificial food coloring and sugar may increase hyperactivity in children with ADHD.