Improve your child’s behavior and learning by improving their diet. Eating adequate protein and getting other nutrients that support optimal brain function is one of the BEST methods for improving attention span and decreasing hyperactivity in children.
These tips can help minimize symptoms of ADD/ADHD, but they aren’t only for those who suffer from diagnosed attention deficit disorder. By giving the brain the nutrients it needs for optimal neurotransmitter and hormone function, everyone will benefit from better cognition, improved focus and drive, and less distractibility. Apply them to yourself and your child for better academic and professional performance.
Tip #1: Provide Protein For Breakfast
Skipping breakfast and not eating adequate protein first thing in the morning sets children up for poor brain function, bad mood, and greater hyperactivity. A quality protein breakfast is one of the simplest, healthiest things you do for your kids (and yourself) because it will prime the chemicals that send messages in the brain throughout the day.
A high-protein breakfast elevates dopamine, acetylcholine, and other neurotransmitters more than a high-carbohydrate breakfast of cereal, orange juice, and banana. The high-carb breakfast will elevate the hormone insulin, raise the chemical transmitter serotonin, and make your child feel foggy in the brain and have lower energy.
In fact, when large quantities of glucose are present in the blood, cells in the brain that are responsible for wakefulness, energy expenditure, and memory get blocked. Eating protein has the opposite effect because the amino acids in protein will stimulate those same cells that get blocked by glucose, making one feel energized and have better cognitive function.
Tip #2: Provide a High-Protein Diet
The amino acids in high-quality protein foods provide the building blocks for the chemical messengers that allow optimal cognitive function so that a child will be motivated and energized, but not hyperactive or inattentive. Enthusiasm and focused energy allow a child to engage in learning, while being under control rather than bouncing off the wall and unable to concentrate!
Research into diets for the treatment of clinical ADHD show that a high-protein diet can improve symptoms and produce better behavior, attention, and social function. Use of a high-protein diet came out of the practice of treating childhood seizures with a ketogenic diet that is very high in fat and low in carbs. Ketogenic diets shift the source of energy for the brain from glucose to fat, which is converted into ketones that are then used for energy in the brain.
This is hard to maintain, and better behavior and health results have been found with a modified ketogenic diet that is high in protein, relatively high in fat, and low in carbs, with most carbs coming from low-glycemic sources such as fruits and vegetables. The high-protein diet will set the neurotransmitters for optimal function, and help maintain the glucose energy source moderate but even for the brain to sustain cognition and behavior.
Tip #3: Negotiate Protein Into the Diet
If you start your children eating a clean high-protein diet a negotiation won’t be necessary, and you can just focus on teaching your kids about why protein is so important for their success and performance. However, if you want to shift your kids away from cereal and higher carbohydrate foods to a protein-based diet, try negotiation.
Start with breakfast and tell your kids they can have their regular bowl of cereal or high-carb treat as part of dinner or at night before bed as a snack (it won’t kill their brain function for the day). Then replace their regular breakfast with protein—try salmon, rolled up turkey with cheese, chicken and apple breakfast sausages sautéed in butter, eggs, or almond butter with fruit slices.
Kids won’t be convinced by research, but a ton of data shows that kids who eat protein for breakfast have superior nutrition, are less likely to be overweight, have better test scores, perform better athletically, and have higher overall education levels than kids who eat a poor quality breakfast or skip it all together.
By negotiating protein into your kid’s diet, they will experience what it’s like to have nutrition that helps them manage their behavior, maintain focus and perform well. Over time, they will make the habit of favoring protein on their own.
Tip #4: Consider Eliminating Gluten and Processed Foods
Eliminating gluten is an effective treatment for severe learning and behavior problems because gluten tends to be poorly digested in the gut, causing an inflammatory response that influences brain function.
Studies show that “elimination” diets are overwhelmingly successful in improving ADHD symptoms and related learning disorders in kids—the challenge is identifying what you need to eliminate because kids are increasingly “intolerant” of different foods including dairy, eggs, nuts, and chocolate.
The simple solution to getting your kid to perform better in school is to eliminate gluten and feed them a high-protein whole foods diet with minimal processed foods. If this doesn’t help improve behavior, you can have your child tested for food intolerances by a doctor to identify additional things you need to avoid.
Tip #5: Boost Omega-3 Fat Intake
Unless your kids eat fatty fish frequently it’s unlikely that they get enough omega-3 fats. The omega-3s DHA and EPA that come from fish oil are necessary for optimal brain function because they enable quick connections to be made by the chemical messengers in the brain.
DHA fat actually makes up a sizable part of the brain and EPA plays other neural roles including eliminating inflammation caused by eating gluten, for example.
Research shows kids with diagnosed ADHD have low omega-3 levels, and although clinical studies haven’t shown great improvements in ADHD symptoms from supplementing with omega-3s, that is probably because treating ADHD requires a multifaceted intervention—just adding omega-3s to the diet won’t solve the problem.
However, a 2008 study that used a multi-treatment approach on ADHD-diagnosed children aged 7 to 12 found that a multivitamin that included magnesium, zinc, vitamin D, and omeg-3 fat significantly improved ability to pay attention and to switch focus to another topic more than a control group that took a placebo. The children also greatly improved vocabulary and reading skills.
Tip #6: Eliminate Food Additives and Dyes from the Diet
A compelling study in the journal the Lancet showed that food additives can trigger hyperactive behavior in children without previous behavior problems. The study led the European Union to require cautionary labeling about synthetic dyes on food products.
In the study, researchers gave 3- and 8-year old children food with artificial food colorings in a dose that is normally found in a large serving of candy. The food colorings produced significant adverse responses in both age groups of children, indicating sensitivity to the chemicals that resulted in poor behavior and social interaction.
The FDA responded to the study by saying that synthetic food dyes “can have a detrimental effect on some children’s behavior” but it rejected putting warning labels on foods. The simple solution to avoid chemicals in your kid’s food is to eliminate processed and packaged foods, and always read ingredients: Look for Yellow #5, Yellow #6, Blue #1, Blue #2, Green #3, BHT, TBHX, BHA, and sodium benzoate and avoid them.
Tip #7: Ensure Zinc Levels Are Adequate
Zinc has been shown to improve ADHD symptoms in kids because it enables neurotransmitter function and is necessary in the metabolism of DHA fat in the brain and of melatonin, which regulates dopamine.
One study of 400 children with diagnosed ADHD found that taking 150 mg/d of zinc sulfate improved impaired social behavior, made subjects less hyperactive and impulsive. Children in the study with more body fat had more dramatic improvements in socialization and hyperactivity measures.
Tip #8: Ensure Magnesium Levels Are Adequate
Magnesium enables brain electrical activity, and supplementing with it has proven to increase cognition. Additionally, magnesium has a calming effect on the central nervous system, making it a top nutrient for children suffering from hyperactivity and lack of focus.
Two studies of children with ADHD found that low magnesium may be a cause. Giving them a magnesium supplement increased attention span, likely due to this mineral improving brain activity and having a calming effect. A mere 200 mg daily will do the trick.
Tip #9: Supplement With Vitamin D
Vitamin D enables the function of every single cell in the body and it plays a role in attention and brain function. Inadequate vitamin D in pregnancy is linked to fetal brain development problems, autism, and schizophrenia.
A Swedish study of 117 psychiatric patients, a small portion of which had diagnosed ADHD, found that only 14.5 percent of the patients had recommended vitamin D levels and all the ADHD patients were deficient.
Vitamin D is made in the body in response to full body sun exposure, so if your child is not in the sun daily, or wears sunscreen, test their vitamin D levels when they go for a physical next time—a level of 40 ng/ml is considered ideal.
Tip #10: Treat with Inositol
Inositol is a carbohydrate or sugar, but it’s not “sugar” in the sense of cane sugar found in candy. Inositol can offset poor concentration and calm the brain, meaning it decreases hyperactivity and can quiet obsessive thoughts.
Brain scans have shown that people with ADHD, especially the hyperactive type, have decreased inositol levels in the brain. This results in lower brain energetic metabolism, meaning the low inositol level stops the brain from getting the nutrients it needs, just like the body needs glucose for energy to keep exercising. The neurotransmitters can’t work properly, causing a disruption in the function of the frontal brain cortex, leading to hyperactivity and obsessive thoughts.
In practice, a dose of 2 to 10 grams of inositol in half a cup of water 45 minutes before bed can help your calm children to go to sleep.
A note about sugar—studies into the link between sugar intake and hyperactivity don’t pan out, but that’s probably because the problem with sugar is that it leads to a large surge in blood sugar going to the brain, which is quickly followed by a drop in blood sugar, producing impaired electrical activity in the cerebral cortex.
So, it’s not the amount of sugar in the diet that is necessarily a problem, but the effect in the body that leads to poor behavior (a small distinction, but important). Ultimately, best cognition and behavior will come from limiting carbs and chemicals that compromise children’s learning and behavior.