Does Diet Really Impact Behaviour? Everything You Need to Know and 3 Tips You Can Put to the Test
Do you have a child that has been diagnosed with Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder, otherwise known as ADD or ADHD? Perhaps you notice signs of behavioural disturbances but your child is too young for an official ADD/ADHD diagnosis or maybe you haven’t started the process of having your child assessed.
Many parents are hesitant to give their child medication but often feel they have no other choice. Typically, parents start with their pediatrician who will refer them to psychologists, behavioural therapists, occupational therapists, psychiatrists, social workers and even speech therapists. All of these incredible healthcare professionals work collaboratively to assess and manage symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention. None of them consider diet and its effect on behaviour.
As a Naturopathic Doctor, I am a true believer that food is the foundation of health. My patients know that I have a few sayings including: “you are what you eat” “food equals mood” and “small changes make big differences.” I have seen this time and time again when it comes to behaviour and it’s truly amazing to see the improvements in children (and adults) when they implement dietary modifications.
Don’t get me wrong! Dietary changes can be daunting. Kids like what they like and parents are often resistant, worried that their child won’t accept dietary changes and that their effort will be for nothing.
I GET IT! But kids are resilient and adaptable. When I work with kids I always explain why we are incorporating new things or taking a break from others. Children are smarter than we think and if we as parents help to empower them, they are often self-motivated and open-minded to make the changes we are often so fearful of.
So what changes can you try to implement at home?
1. Remove Refined Sugars and sweeteners
Sugar is not your friend. It not only increases inflammation in the body, but also does so in the brain. Sugars come in numerous forms and marketing often misleads parents into thinking that what they are purchasing is a healthy option, when in fact, it is riddled with processed sugars that can negatively impact behaviour.
The World Health Organization defines “Free Sugars” as “all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juice and fruit juice concentrates.” Examples include: Table sugar, cane sugar, honey, dextrose or dextrin, fructose or fruit juice concentrate, glucose, sucrose, sugar (palm, raw, beet, brown, invert), syrup (corn, maple, rice, barley, malt), treacle and xylose. Free sugars can “turn on” ADHD behaviour and while the studies are inconclusive, there is enough evidence that sugar can enhance hyperactivity, inattention, destructive and restless behaviour.
So what does that mean to you? You need to start reading food labels. Not just the label but also the ingredient list. You want to limit sugar intake to a max of 24g per day and aim for sugars to come from fresh fruits rather than processed foods. Once you start reading labels you will be surprised to learn just how much sugar your child may be consuming.
And FYI: sugars are also hidden in children’s gummy vitamins so BE AWARE. You get what you pay for and when you opt to purchase cheaper supplements, you’re often getting cheaper quality products with greater behaviour-altering, non-medicinal ingredients. If you want to know what the best supplements are for your kids, feel free to book a visit and I will create a strategic plan for your child.
2. Ditch the food dyes and colours, flavours and preservatives
Sometimes sugar itself is not the culprit of ADD/ADHD. More often than not, it’s the hidden food dyes, colours, flavours and preservatives found in processed foods (and supplements!) that are the problem. There have been 15 published studies that conclude artificial food colouring can lead to hyperactivity, irritability and insomnia in some kids with ADHD. Like sugar, the studies are inconclusive but many parents admit that the removal of these foods worked wonders for their child. In fact, I had one mom in a local mom group thank me last week, telling me that the removal of red dye from her son’s diet resolved her son’s aggressive behaviour and improved his nighttime sleep. She was skeptical before she made the changes but now that she’s seen the improvement, she truly understands why I say that food is the foundation of health. It really is.
Food dyes, colours, flavours and preservatives are found in so many processed foods and snacks but also in drinks such as Gatorade or Powerade. These drinks are literally a recipe for hyperactivity, irritability and agitated behaviour. If your child is into sports and uses these electrolyte replacement drinks, substitute them with simple coconut water - nature’s Gatorade! If your kids don’t play sports, stick with water. I cannot begin to emphasize its importance.
Ultimately, as I said above, you need to start reading the ingredient list of any and all prepackaged foods, drinks and supplements. If you can’t read, write, say, spell or explain what an ingredient does in the body, your body doesn’t recognize it either. Follow this rule and you are on your way to success. Not just for your child, but for your whole family. If you need help making dietary modifications or want a strategic plan for your child, feel free to reach out anytime.
3. Start the day with a protein rich meal and incorporate healthy fats
Studies show that protein promotes alertness in the brain while carbohydrates do the opposite. Proteins provide the nervous system with the building blocks it needs to make neurotransmitters, biochemical messengers that carry signals from one brain cell to another. The better you feed these messengers, the more efficiently and accurately they deliver their signals. Many studies have found that both kids and adults see improvements when they start incorporating protein-rich meals at breakfast specifically. For kids taking stimulant medication for ADHD, protein-rich meals can help reduce any irritability and restlessness associated with them. The general rule of thumb for kids is 1-1.5grams of protein for every 2Lbs of body weight. That means a 40Lbs child needs approximately 18grams of protein per day.
When it comes to fats, you want to avoid the saturated and trans fats and stick to healthy fats found in nuts, seeds, olive oil, coconut oil and avocado. Fats make up 60% of the brain and nerves that run every system in the body. The better the fat in the diet, the better the brain will function. Omega 6’s are naturally occurring fats found in food but can cause inflammation. You want to ensure your child is getting enough Omega 3 Fatty Acids, the most anti-inflammatory fat that exists. When it comes to supplementing with Essential Fatty Acids, you need to make sure you are giving the right ratio of EPA to DHA so be sure you speak with a licensed Naturopathic Doctor who can recommend the best product for your child. I can assure you, not all Omega 3 supplements are the same. Don’t waste your money on bad quality or ineffective products.
Are you still skeptical of the benefits of the impact of dietary changes on behaviour? The evidence exists and making modifications can’t hurt. I didn’t even get into food sensitivities which can trigger negative behaviour! 70% of children who go beyond the basics of what I just discussed, experience positive effects on behaviour – now THAT is significant.
If you are concerned about your child’s behaviour and feel that it is impacting their ability to learn or socialize, remember there is so much you can try before starting medication. Even if they are on medication, addressing the diet amongst other things can improve the efficacy of their medication. Many parents I work with have a goal of discontinuing medication which can be possible with the right, strategic approach. It’s not always easy but it is doable. If you are in the Toronto or Vaughan area and want to learn more, I invite you to book a free consultation to see how I can help you. Visits are offered online and in person and are covered by extended health insurance.