Healthy Kids    

Is your child’s diet creating problems?

ADHD and the food connection

It’s the most commonly diagnosed childhood behavioral disorder in the United States. Causing fidgeting, excessive talking, a lack of organization and overall focus, it has thousands of parents, teachers, counselors and even nutritionists, confused and searching for answers. What is this puzzling condition? It’s Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, more commonly referred to as ADHD.

Is your family sugared up?

For years, the “fixes” for this increasingly prevalent condition have caused controversy. Some claim only medication can effectively treat ADHD, while others maintain strict behavioral modification is the way to go. Most recently, a growing population is convinced there is a definite link between certain foods and the onset of ADHD. So who is right?

Jeffrey Roosa, LCWSR and director of Roosa Counseling Services in Middletown and Rock Hill, says that while he fails to see a direct nutritional link, he doesn’t disclaim an indirect one.“Other organic conditions are connected to food and could affect ADHD,” says Roosa, author of The ADHD Kid. “I think the best way to see improvement is to get the child involved in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, working through social skills such as limits, boundaries, working with others, and other core skills; parents should also be included in the process.”

Sarah Spoerri doesn’t think so. A registered nurse in Liberty whose three adult children were all diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder in childhood, Spoerri refutes Roosa’s dismissal of the role nutrition plays in ADHD. Seeing diet’s profound effect on her children firsthand, Spoerri is convinced of the vital connection sugar, along with certain other foods, have on ADHD.

“With my oldest son, our pediatrician at the time encouraged me to never give him dairy products, saying a cow’s milk should be saved for cow’s babies. He also encouraged me to look for vegetable sources of calcium, such as green, leafy vegetables,” recalls Spoerri, who saw drastic improvements in all three of her sons’ behaviors with diet adjustments. “And of course, the greatest, and easiest to control, culprit is sugar. Almost every food has it or turns into it.”

So, what foods should parents try to get their ADHD child to eat more of, and which should be limited? Foods full of essential fatty acids, omega-3s, top the list. These include fish, nuts and flax seed, which can be added to a variety of foods. Omega-3s help supply the brain with more Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), which helps boost focus, memory and learning.

When unnecessary “bad” fats dominate, problems in the ADHD child are sure to follow, according to Washingtonville certified holistic health counselor Nikki Bottos. “Eating poor quality red meats can produce an excess of the hormone prostaglandins … which can usually make a child more aggressive or emotionally stressed,” notes Bottos, a nurse for 10 years prior to specializing in holistic health.

In fact, an Oxford University study looked at the effects of fatty acid supplementation in average intelligence children who had reading and writing problems. The ADHD symptoms in kids who received these necessary fatty acids improved over those who did not.

Does food rule us?

Bottos, who says she has seen amazing results adjusting the diets of children with ADHD for the past two years, sums up the basic guidelines for their nutritional plan. “An optimal diet for a child with ADHD consists of a whole food vegetarian selection, including unrefined foods, no sugars, fruits, vegetables, organic dairy and meats,” she explains.

OK, so what about medicine?

Spoerri, who works in the medical field, worries about many of the drug-dominated approaches to “curing” ADHD, in particular Ritalin. “It scares me that we are legally addicting our young with Ritalin,” says Spoerri, who has worked with clients who have addictions for the past 14 years. “Oftentimes, these medicines are just a quick-fix, which can help curb ADHD, but not cure it. In fact, they can make it worse by creating weight loss, aggression and drowsiness.”

Faced with the growing controversy over ADHD medications, many parents are pursuing nutrition as an option to help solve this ADHD puzzle. Once a parent has considered the nutrition path for an ADHD child, several topics need to be considered.

First, parents need to determine if nutrition and food are to be used as an alternative medicine or in conjunction with traditional ADHD stimulant drug treatment. One way is to pursue the Elimination Diet, which involves taking out various foods from the child’s diet and seeing the effect on the child’s behavior.

If a special diet is decided upon, it is crucial that it not be followed in such a strict manner that it creates even more stress. When parents are too obsessive about nutrition, the child can become resentful and defiant. Focus on one goal at a time. For instance, a parent might want to decrease sugar or increase protein intake, determining the effect each has on the child.

Be patient. Bottos points out that a dietary change takes longer for the body to recognize than a chemical one, such as medicine. As a result, it could take as long as 6-8 weeks to see changes in behavior from an adjusted diet. Bottos suggests if a child is already on medication, introduce the dietary alterations but consult with the child’s doctor about any dosage changes.

To change your child’s diet or not?

Despite the population of medical naysayers pointing to the lack of definitive medical research when it comes to nutrition and ADHD, for many on the other side of the fence, the proof is in the results. City of Newburgh chiropractor John Fischer has dealt with many ADHD children over the years. His answer does not lie in therapy, nor does it involve any medicine. Only one variable truly matters.

“I have seen incredible results with ADHD children once I have changed the way they eat, having them follow the Zone Diet, a plan that involves fish oil, along with an array of ‘good fat’ fish and chiefly whole grain food selection, with reduced sugar, starches, processed food and anything containing additives, as well as a high intake of fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Fisher, a certified nutrition expert. “Parents just need to remember children cannot do it alone.

Temptations are everywhere, but once that child learns what to do and experiences how good he or she can feel and the success that can be achieved in school and life, that kid will never want to go back to eating any other way.”

Jennifer Warren is a freelance writer living in Orange County.