ADHD Food: The Right Carbs, Fats, Proteins, and More

Foods and nutrients -- such as complex carbs, fish oil, protein, and certain vitamins -- could boost ADHD brain power. Discover how!

Girl enjoying food ©stock.xchng/januszek

Scientists finally agree with parents of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) who have suspected a connection between the kinds of foods their children eat and their behavior and symptoms.

Two recent studies show a relationship between diet and ADD/ADHD symptoms. One, published in Pediatrics, concluded that pesticides, specifically organophosphates, found on fruits and vegetables may be linked to ADD/ADHD. The higher the levels of the compounds detected in a child’s urine, the more likely the chance of having ADD/ADHD. (Solution? Eat organic, suggest the study’s authors.) Another study, published in Journal of Attention Disorders, showed that a Western diet -- processed meats, fast foods, high-fat dairy products, and sugary foods -- doubled the risk of having an ADD/ADHD diagnosis, compared with eating a healthier diet.

Nutrition affects the ADD brain in three ways. Brain cells, like other cells in the body, need proper nutrition to carry out their functions; the myelin sheath, which covers the axons of brain cells, as insulation covers electrical wires, needs the right levels of nutrients to speed transmission of the electrical signals between brain cells; neurotransmitters -- dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine -- are dependent on diet for their production.

If the right nutrients aren’t accessible to the brain, its circuits misfire. Read on to find out what nutrients an ADD/ADHD brain needs to function well.

Carbs and ADD/ADHD Brain Power

Carbs affect brain function and mood. The rate at which sugar from a particular food enters brain cells, and other cells of the body, is called the “glycemic index” (GI). Foods with a high glycemic index stimulate the pancreas to secrete high levels of insulin, which causes sugar to empty quickly from the blood into the cells. Insulin regulates the ups and downs of blood sugar, and the rollercoaster behavior that sometimes goes with them. Low-glycemic foods deliver a steady supply of sugar, helping a person with ADD/ADHD control behavior and improve performance.

Foods with the best brain sugars include:

Fruits: grapefruit, apples, cherries, oranges, and grapes. Fruits have a lower glycemic index, or Gi, than fruit juices, because fiber in fruit slows the absorption of fruit sugar. A whole apple is more brain-friendly than apple juice; a whole orange better than orange juice.

Cereals and grains: oatmeal, bran, higher-fiber cereals and pastas also have a low Gi. Corn flakes and sugarcoated breakfast cereals have higher Gis.

Vegetables and legumes: legumes, such as soybeans, kidney beans, and lentils have the lowest glycemic index of any food.

Dairy products: Milk and yogurt have low Gis, slightly higher than legumes, but lower than fruits. Plain yogurt has a lower glycemic index than yogurt with fruit preserves or sugar added.

Fat, Fish Oil, and ADD/ADHD Brain Power

“Fats make up 60 percent of the brain and of the nerves that run every system in the body,” says William Sears, M.D., an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. “The better the fat in the diet, the better the brain will function.”

Most important to brain function are the two essential fatty acids found in fish oil, linoleic (or omega- 6) and alpha linolenic (or omega-3). These are the prime structural components of brain cell membranes, and an important part of the enzymes that allow cell membranes to transport nutrients in and out of cells. Western diets contain too many omega-6 fatty acids and too few of the omega-3s, which are found in coldwater fish (primarily salmon and tuna), soybeans, walnuts, wheat germ, pumpkin seeds, and eggs. Flaxseed and canola oils are good sources of omega-3s.

“ADDers who have low levels of omega-3s will show the biggest improvement in mental focus and cognitive function when they add more of these healthy fats to their diet,” says Richard Brown, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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