The Anti-ADHD Diet
- August 08, 2023
- Steve Macias
Is Your Child’s Diet Connected to ADHD behavior?
There exists a debate on whether diet and particularly whether sugar consumption is connected to hyperactivity. Some experts claim that parents like myself are mistaken when we connect the birthday cake and the chaos that follows. They tell us that there is not enough evidence to suggest that it was the Pepsi that caused our children to bounce off the walls.
A similar debate around the affect of carbohydrates has raged for decades. The foundation of the American food pyramid and the standard American diet (SAD) is built upon simple carbohydrates. At the base of the pyramid, representing the largest portion, are foods like bread, cereal, rice, and pasta. Basic high school chemistry and some diabetic family members had taught me that sugar and bread are both carbohydrates and have a similar impact on blood sugar and insulin sensitivity. Yet low-carbohydrate diets like Atkins and Keto variations are often maligned as dangerous or unsustainable. We are told, “but your body needs carbs for energy!” The modern nutritional standards established by government programs claim that the standard American diet is not responsible for obesity and the decline in metabolic health. The issue is instead a lack of fruits and vegetables, or too much fat and meat, or simply too many calories and not enough exercise.
The same establishment telling us carbs aren’t connected with obesity is also telling us that sugar isn’t connected to hyperactive behavior. I’m skeptical and believe there is good reason to believe carbs and sugar are connected to both obesity and hyperactivity.
The Corporate Nutrition-Industrial Complex
My skepticism toward this viewpoint grew from reading Dr. Ron Paul’s book The Revolution back in 2009. Congressman Paul, himself a medical doctor, was writing on the unintended consequences of government favoritism in sugar tariffs. “The United States government limits the amount of sugar that can be imported from around the world. These quotas make sugar more expensive… That’s one reason American colas use corn syrup instead of sugar…” (Ch. 4: Economic Freedom) It was the first time I had considered that specialized lobbies could abuse seemingly benevolent policies to their own benefit. It wasn’t long after that that I learned that this same industry had been paying scientists to intentionally understate the affect of sugar in metabolic diseases.
Camila Domonoske reported that,
“In the 1960s, the sugar industry funded research that downplayed the risks of sugar and highlighted the hazards of fat…”50 Years Ago, Sugar Industry Quietly Paid Scientists To Point Blame At Fat
As Dr. Paul pointed out, Americans consume many of their calories through the corn syrup version of sugar. “Big Corn” itself is another benefactor of government favoritism with huge farm subsidies:
“The U.S. federal government spends roughly $20 billion per year on farm subsidies: approximately 60% go towards corn and other grains that are used predominantly in processed foods and as animal feed, while fruits and vegetables receive less than 1% of these subsidies. Because of the subsidies that corn and other similar crops receive, their byproducts are exceptionally cheap and incentivize food manufacturers to use them in place of other ingredients, resulting in food that is both cheap and heavily processed.”by Ruhee Shah and Dave Youssef, Medpage Today
That corn syrup shows up in strange places. Kids foods like juice drinks, applesauce, chicken nuggets, and even infant formula often use corn syrups as cheap sweeteners to add flavor. Even low-fat and fat-free milk can dump corn syrup into their products to make up for the bland low-fat taste. “Fat free versions… typically replaces the milk fat with corn syrup and thickeners,” wrote Julia Zumpano, an RD at Cleveland Clinic’s Heart and Vascular Institute in TIME.
Confusing the Experts and the Facts
Decades of nutritional research has been paid for by corporations that benefit from the Standard American Diet. There is no neutral research of “just the facts”—as so many naively believe. We have certainly seen “Big Food” corporations colluding with government agencies, but that isn’t our only issue. Worldviews play into our discussion of nutrition as well. Climate alarmists and animal rights crusaders have leveraged “nutrition” as a pawn in a political proxy war citing their own experts and institutions for support. Therefore we must “eat the bugs.” Body positive influencers and pop psychology blogs tell us that traditional forms of meat-based nutrition are wrong and form disordered eating habits. These experts completely dominate every influential domain of nutrition and yet American health continues to decline. They also dominate nearly every aisle of the grocery story and nearly every restaurant menu.
Pathologizing Our Children
Are our children better off? Establishment nutrition has not reversed the obesity crisis. In fact, many places where government policies dictate standard nutrition guidelines such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) we actually see higher rates of obesity. American children from low-income families (the group that qualifies for and benefits from the above federal nutrition programs) have twice the obesity rates than children from higher income households (see CDC Childhood Obesity Statistics). Their solution made the problem worse.
Have they done the same thing with ADHD? And why is it that boys are twice as likely to be diagnosed as ADHD? I almost hate using the term ADHD because it is tossed around to describe any child who has any behavior issue. As a teacher, I’ve witnessed the term used endlessly to shunt the natural vitality of boys in the classroom. Lazy teachers with poor classroom management can use the term to hide their own shortcomings. I don’t blame them, I know firsthand how hard it is to manage a group of rambunctious adolescents day after day. Teachers often lack support from parents and work in schools where discipline and order are distant fantasies. Parents struggle too. Busy lives and hectic schedules don’t provide enough margin to try and figure out why Billy can’t seem to sit still.
Our culture’s answer has been to pathologize and medicate.
“I think maybe he has ADHD?” says the overwhelmed parent looking for help and grasping for some sort of solution. Many times what parents fear to be symptoms of some neurodevelopmental disorder are actually the consequence of their parenting style. For many students I’ve worked with – the “deficit” of “attention” is not the child’s fault. His short “attention span” was trained by the instant stream of activity through iPads, Nintendo, and other screen time. “Attention” wasn’t paid to creating schedules and routines to help form expectations for play, sleep, or even eating. Students can’t function in the classroom because they live in a perpetual chaos. No one limits their exposure to the spikes of dopamine induced by Mr. Beast on Youtube. Their impulse control is destroyed as every momentary inconvenience is eased by a parent’s pacifying. What happens to social skills when today’s children are no longer expected to wait patiently or even participate in family meals. “How was your day, Junior?” has been replaced with the little brat making a fuss until Mom lets him play with his iPad at the table. Last week, I saw a post of an overly-indulgent parent allowing their child to use the iPad while they were watching a movie in the movie theatre. Maybe they’ve all been trained to behave this way?
Drug the Brain
For the millions of children who are labeled ADHD, more than 75% of them get to experience dexedrine or ritalin as their new normal. These drugs alter the chemistry of the brain by slowing down the reuptake of neurotransmitters and affecting how neurons communicate. Psychiatric drugs have become the standard for treating students who struggle to pay attention. While I don’t doubt that many students may suffer from chemical imbalances in their brains, there’s no brain chemistry measuring tool used in labeling students with ADHD. Instead, various scales are employed that ask doctors, parents, and teachers to check off and evaluate ADHD symptoms. Reading these diagnostic scales you quickly recognize that the vast majority of our nation’s undisciplined, distracted, and overstimulated adults would also be classified as having ADHD.
Low Risk Interventions – Diet and Hyperactivity
Maybe your kid has ADHD. But what if there were other ways to help treat its symptoms?
A 2011 study on 5th graders found that diet directly impacted behavior and emotional intelligence:
“Simple sugar consumption may cause hyperactivity, given that snacks containing high sugar content cause massive secretion of insulin from the pancreas, resulting in hypoglycemia . This stimulates an increase in epinephrine, leading to activation of nervous reactions and hyperactivity disorder behaviors . In other words, elevated intake of snacks might increase the potential of nutritional imbalance, lower emotional intelligence [10-11], and ADHD [12-14].”Correlation between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and sugar consumption, quality of diet, and dietary behavior in school children, Korean Society of Community Nutrition and the Korean Nutrition Society (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3133757/)
Diet and the Brain
Glucose is ordinarily the fuel for the human brain. When you eat carbohydrates (like bread and desserts), your digestive system breaks them down into simpler sugars, including glucose. These sugars are absorbed into the bloodstream, raising blood sugar levels. While most nutrients need to be transported through a barrier called the blood-brain barrier to enter the brain, glucose can cross this barrier easily. This allows glucose to be readily available for brain cells to use as energy.
“Brain functions such as thinking, memory, and learning are closely linked to glucose levels and how efficiently the brain uses this fuel source. If there isn’t enough glucose in the brain, for example, neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers, are not produced and communication between neurons breaks down.”—Scott Edwards, Sugar and the Brain (The Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute)
A recent review article examined data to study the affect of dietary interventions in the management of ADHD. They authors state that:
“Inverse associations between adherence to ‘healthy’ diets and ADHD symptoms have been observed. Children with ADHD responding to the few-foods diet (or oligoantigenic diet) with an elimination of individually identified food items show substantially improved behavior and cognitive functioning.”Nutrition in the Management of ADHD: A Review of Recent Research
As we might expect, researchers found that changing your diet can have a huge impact on symptoms of ADHD.
Brain Food: Glucose and Ketone Bodies
If diets can affect the brain, which is best? Since ADHD is related to poorly regulated neurotransmitters, a diet protocol should also consider brain metabolism. Research shows that the ketogenic diet can be helpful in reducing seizures for individuals with epilepsy. Scientists are also investigating whether this diet could have potential benefits for people dealing with conditions like Parkinson’s disease, migraines, post-concussion syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Ketogenic diets are eating plans where you eat lots of fats, a good amount of protein, and not too many carbs. This kind of diet can make your blood sugar levels change, increase the amount of fatty acids in your body, and make you eat fewer calories. These diets cause your body to create something called “ketones,” which happens when you’re in a state called “ketosis.” Ketosis can also occur when you eat fewer calories, fast, or exercise. Ketones replace glucose as fuel for the brain. Although the body’s metabolism of ketones quickly generates a lot of fuel (in the form of acetyl-CoA) compared to glucose metabolism (see Krebs cycle). This excess fuel leads to a cycle that helps increase GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) synthesis. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it helps to regulate brain activity by reducing neuron firing. The potential relationship between ketosis, GABA synthesis, and neuronal inhibition has led researchers to explore the use of ketogenic diets in the management of conditions like epilepsy and certain neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD. (see García-Rodríguez D and Giménez-Cassina A (2021) Ketone Bodies in the Brain Beyond Fuel Metabolism: From Excitability to Gene Expression and Cell Signaling.)
Blood Sugar Regulation and Elimination Diets
Using food as a treatment approach for ADHD offers an opportunity to gain insight into how your child’s current diet may impact their mood, energy levels, and behavior. Parents can deliberately remove specific foods from a child’s diet. The purpose is to identify potential triggers for various symptoms, including hyperactivity—I would begin with an elimination approach removes common autoimmune triggers like grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, nightshade vegetables, eggs, oils, food additives, refined and processed sugars, and dairy. Then after a few weeks, some items may be slowly reintroduced according to reactions and food tolerances. This approach can help you identify certain foods or food additives that might trigger hyperactive behavior.
All children on the standard American diet facing attention-related challenges willl experience some reduction in hyperactivity by consuming fewer foods that are rich in sugars and heavily processed carbohydrates. Your child’s overall behavior and energy levels are directly affected by the ketogenic diet because decreasing carbohydrate intake also offers the benefit of promoting more consistent blood sugar levels. By doing so, this can help prevent the energy crashes (aka sugar crash or carb crash) and attention fluctuations that can result from consuming sugary or high-carbohydrate foods. When blood sugar levels spike and then rapidly drop after a meal or snack, it can lead to feelings of fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. This rollercoaster effect is especially noticeable in children, as their bodies are still developing and their metabolism can be more sensitive to fluctuations in blood sugar. Proteins and healthy fats further slow down the digestion process and provide longer-lasting energy.
Putting My Hyperactive Kid on Keto
The actual meal planning of the Keto diet is rather simple. Exact calories and grams of macronutrients will vary based on your child’s age, weight, activity level, and health goals, but the typical ketogenic ratio is around 70-75% fat, 20-25% protein, and 5-10% carbohydrates. After an elimination phase, you would still want to avoid high-carb foods like grains, starchy vegetables, sugary snacks, and too much fruit. Types of keto diets can range from strict carnivore diets (meat, water, and salt) to low-carb versions of the Mediterranean diet, known for its emphasis on whole foods, healthy fats, and plant-based ingredients, with a lower intake of carbohydrates.
Here’s are two examples of Anti-ADHD Meals:
Lunch Option: Mediterranean Chicken Salad
- Grilled Chicken Salad:
- Grilled chicken breast slices seasoned with herbs and olive oil.
- Mixed greens (spinach, arugula, lettuce).
- Cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes, and bell pepper strips.
- Kalamata olives and feta cheese for flavor.
- Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice.
- Sliced avocado with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.
- Mixed nuts (almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts).
- Vegetable Dippers:
- Sliced bell peppers and celery sticks.
- Serve with a side of guacamole or low-carb hummus .
- Berries and Cream:
- A small container of mixed berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries).
- A dollop of unsweetened whipped cream or full-fat Greek yogurt.
- Water or herbal tea, infused with lemon or cucumber slices.
“Kid Friendly” Lunch Option: Mini Pizza Bites and Snacks
- Mini Pizza Bites:
- Mini cauliflower crust pizza bites (pre-made or homemade).
- Top with sugar-free tomato sauce, shredded mozzarella cheese, and mini pepperoni slices.
- Bake until cheese is melted and bubbly.
- Cheesy Snack Mix:
- Mix together a variety of cheese cubes (cheddar, mozzarella, etc.).
- Add some small cured meat slices (like salami or pepperoni).
- Include a handful of raw almonds or walnuts.
- Veggies and Dip:
- Baby carrots, cucumber slices, and bell pepper strips.
- Serve with a side of ranch dressing or guacamole for dipping.
- Berries with Whipped Cream:
- A small container of fresh strawberries and blueberries.
- Top with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream.
- Fun Drink:
- Sugar-free flavored sparkling water with a splash of lemon or lime juice.
- Treat (in moderation):
- A square of dark chocolate (make sure it’s low in sugar and high in cocoa content).
Disclaimer: Not Medical or Health Advice. The content of this blog post is intended to share personal insights and experiences from the perspective of a father of four and an elementary school educator. It is important to note that the information provided in this post is not intended to serve as professional medical or health advice and the information shared here is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any health-related condition. I would like to acknowledge the diversity of individual circumstances and encourage readers to seek appropriate advice from medical, educational, or other relevant experts to address specific concerns or issues.