Health, Food & Nutrition

Beefing Up Breakfast

A good breakfast is key to starting the day right. Here’s how to make sure you’re eating a proper combination of foods.

Stack of pancakes covered in maple syrup with blueberries makes a good breakfast for ADHD kids
Stack of pancakes covered in maple syrup with blueberries makes a good breakfast for ADHD kids

When it comes to breakfast, 8-year-old Madeline, diagnosed with ADHD last year, knows what she likes — carbohydrates. Her meal of choice is toast with jelly or waffles topped with fruit or, as her mother puts it, “anything made with white flour.”

While there’s nothing wrong with eating carbohydrates in the morning, an all-carb breakfast is a recipe for inattention. It won’t steady a child’s blood sugar throughout the morning, help her stay alert, or prevent energy dips that cause a child to lose focus in the classroom. A balanced breakfast — high in protein and carbohydrates from whole grains, fruits, and/or vegetables — ensures a varied supply of nutrients along with enough calories to sustain mental and physical energy until the next meal.

“If you don’t eat properly, you can become distracted, impulsive, and restless,” says Ned Hallowell, M.D., founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Andover, Massachusetts, and author of Delivered from Distraction. “Skipping breakfast or self-medicating with food can sabotage the best of ADHD treatment plans. In treating the condition, you must consider a balanced diet an essential component of a proper regimen.”

Protein is an important ingredient in that treatment. “Protein helps keep your child’s blood sugar levels steady and prevents the mental and physical declines that inevitably come from eating an unbalanced breakfast containing too many carbs,” says Hallowell.

Complementing Carbs

Like most children with ADHD, Madeline has very specific preferences and she will reject any food she’s not fond of. Her mother knows what foods to keep on hand and which to serve first thing in the morning to ensure that breakfast goes smoothly. She tries to balance these foods in ways that give her daughter as many calories and as much high-quality protein as possible, especially on school days.

“When you’re thinking about your child’s eating habits, or any other behavior, you have to recognize his unique temperament and behavioral traits, and work around them,” says Dr. Stanley Greenspan, M.D., author of The Challenging Child.

What works best for Madeline, her mother says, is to eat a small breakfast at home and to have a second breakfast on the way to school. Madeline takes her medication with her first meal, so by the time she’s heading out the door, it’s beginning to take effect and she’s better able to focus on eating. To fill in the protein gaps, her mom may send along some scrambled eggs with cheese in a tightly wrapped tortilla, a high-protein cereal bar, or a bottled yogurt smoothie.

Children need more calories and protein per pound of body weight than adults do, to ensure normal growth and development and to maintain good health. The average daily amounts of calories and protein recommended by government health experts for normal-weight children and adolescents are as follows:

  • Ages 1-3: 1300 calories, 16 grams protein
  • Ages 4-6: 1800 calories, 24 grams protein
  • Ages 7-14: 2000 calories, 28 – 45 grams protein

A varied diet that supplies enough calories will generally supply enough protein. Children with ADHD who are strictly vegetarian and those who avoid only meat or dairy can get enough protein from a diet rich in whole grains, legumes (dried beans and lentils), and the many meat and dairy substitutes made from soy protein and wheat gluten.

Protein in a Pinch

Here are some easy, tasty ways to get enough protein into your carb-lover’s diet without turning your kitchen or dining room into a battlefield. The idea behind all of them is to start with her favorite carbohydrates, such as waffles, toast, jam, or fruit. Then you add in high-protein foods you know your child likes, such as eggs, meat, peanut butter, yogurt, cheese or other dairy products, or beans. Combine these foods in creative ways:

  • Top waffles with melted cheese or ham and cheese, instead of syrup or fruit.
  • Spread peanut butter on apple slices, a halved banana, or celery sticks.
  • Fill a breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, black beans, and cheese.
  • Spread a toasted, whole-grain bagel with peanut butter or another nut butter, such as almond or hazelnut.
  • Wrap a slice of turkey bacon around a firm-ripe banana; broil or grill until the bacon is thoroughly cooked.
  • Saute lean, breakfast sausage patties with pieces of diced apples.
  • Swirl crushed fruit or fruit jam into plain yogurt and top with dry, whole-grain cereal or chopped nuts.
  • Fill an omelet with chopped or sliced fresh fruit or spreadable fruit.
  • Serve tuna or chicken salad, sloppy joes, chili, or baked beans over toast.

Children need less protein as they move from infancy into childhood, but their protein requirements increase again around puberty. In the United States, however, most children (and most adults, for that matter) consume more protein than they need at every stage of life. As long as your child’s growth rate is normal, you can be pretty sure he’s getting enough calories and also getting enough protein from the foods that are providing those calories. This is true even if most of those foods are also high in carbohydrates. The only child who might be at risk of protein deficiency is a child whose diet doesn’t provide enough calories overall or a child whose diet is restricted in any way that regularly excludes good, quality sources of protein from animal or plant foods.

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