by Dana Harvey
Medical studies continue to draw links between nutrition and brain function. Unfortunately, this can be a chicken and egg story for people with ADHD: My ADHD makes it harder to plan healthy meals and snacks; my inability to plan healthy meals and snacks exacerbates my ADHD.
So what to do?
Nutrition and its effect on the body and brain are incredibly complex—professionals study for years and get degrees in the subject. You do not need to become an expert, however, to practice good nutrition. Common sense nutrition rules—along with regular exercise, sleep and hydration—can optimize your health. Although the medical community generally agrees ADHD is a neurological condition you are born with and cannot be "cured” by diet, there are specific nutritional recommendations for improving executive function.
My advice comes from years of paying attention to health/psychiatric professionals, reading literature by nutritionists, sharing anecdotes with both ADHD and non-ADHD friends, and listening to my own body. Despite discrepancies in advice (I know how frustrating it is when something that was good for you yesterday is poison today, but will be back in favor tomorrow!), newly discovered micronutrients and fad health diets, certain basic notions about nutrition persist. I highly recommend you do your own research, but do so in small increments… nutrition can turn into an endless obsession!
Rule #1: Decrease or Eliminate Sugar
Sugar isn’t only the white stuff, it’s also corn syrup, fructose, agave, ‘fruit sweetened,’ and evaporated cane juice. It has snuck into processed foods including peanut butter, bread and cereal. Everyone loves it—people with ADHD may have a particularly strong "sweet-tooth” for the same reason they are drawn to caffeine—it acts as a mild stimulant. Blood sugar spikes give immediate energy to your brain cells, but the crash happens fast and leaves you craving more.
Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay, muscle degeneration and even Alzheimer’s have a direct relationship to sugar intake in the long term, but immediately, sugar consumption affects mood stability and concentration. Quitting sugar is difficult if not impossible. Your body craves sugar, and replacing it with artificial sweeteners isn’t a panacea. Artificial sweeteners have their own health complications including increased sugar cravings.
Some sweet alternatives include:
· Natural stevia (great in drinks, smoothies, and raw deserts like puddings and whipped cream);
· Raw, local honey (not the stuff from the grocery store, which is mostly corn syrup);
· Fresh fruit, particularly citrus fruits and berries;
· Dried fruits such as dates, figs, prunes and raisins;
· Sugar alcohols, which also help improve teeth.
Rule #2: Decrease or Eliminate Simple Carbs
Starch is a small step above sugar in terms of its structural complexity, so your body reacts almost as if you were eating sugar. High quantities of these simple carbs are found in most processed foods, even the ones labeled "whole grain.”
Complex carbs, on the other hand, are good for you and provide sustained energy. A good-quality carb will usually contain protein and other nutrients as well. Eating them in their original grain/bean form is ideal. Any grain milled into flour loses some of its nutritional quality and gains a higher proportion of starch.
Rule #3: Eat Fat
One of the worst health crazes of the last century was the low-fat/non-fat diet of the 80’s and 90’s. Even as people take drastic measures to remove naturally occurring fats from their foods, America is experiencing all-time highs in obesity.
Naturally occurring fats—both plant and animal—are essential nutrients that help regulate your appetite, improve your tissue composition, stabilize your mood and increase your brain function. This is not a free pass to pile on tons of butter or load up on cream, but fats are good in moderation and probably should not be removed from foods. To this day, I eat full-fat cheese, whole eggs and whole milk and I believe it has helped with my eating disorder recovery and improved my weight stability.
Rule #4: Eat Protein
Protein is essential for production and reception of dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain. Eating protein at breakfast and throughout the day has a direct positive effect on managing ADHD.
Not all proteins are created equally. A proper vegetarian or vegan diet will ensure your body receives sufficient protein, but this is not the same thing as simply giving up meat. I have been both vegan and vegetarian as I have concerns about industrialized meat, but a diet without sufficient protein is poison for an adult with ADHD. I’ve found eating local eggs and milk products as well as fish to be a good compromise, but if you need to eat meat, eat it.
Rule #5: If You Can’t Tell Where It Comes From, Don’t Eat It
Broccoli comes from the ground. Chicken breast comes from a chicken. Nuts come from trees. But what about an Oreo cookie? A Twinkie? Cheesies?
Researchers are finally acknowledging what your mother and grandmother said for years—junk food is bad for you. Processing natural foods breaks apart complex nutrient chains, often leaving only simple carbs and empty calories. The resulting "food products” are often fortified with synthetic nutrients and proteins to improve the nutrition facts label, but the medical controversy persists as to whether your body can derive much benefit from these additives. Along with simple carbs, processed foods usually contain preservatives, added sugars and hydrogenated fats. After all, who’s more concerned with your health, Nabisco, Con-Agra and Kraft… or mom?
Rule #5 encapsulates rules 1-4. Unfortunately, labeling, while it’s supposedly helpful, actually makes it more difficult than ever to discern junk food from real food. Labels such as "all natural,” "whole grain” and "light” do not refer to any FDA standards and are essentially meaningless. Ideally, you’d buy (or grow!) and cook raw ingredients yourself, but the realities of our hectic schedules mean you’ll probably rely on the occasional premade meal or snack. When you’re stuck, check the label. If you can’t pronounce included ingredients or if the label has fancy language for added sugars or fats, it’s probably not good for you.
Rule #6: Take Necessary Supplements
Nutritional supplements can become a costly obsession. There are so many claims that exotic juices, seeds and fruits from the deep in the jungle cure any range of ailments that it’s hard separating out the snake oil. You need to find what works for you, and I highly recommend you speak to a health professional (not the person selling the supplements!) before embarking on a supplement journey.
Here are some standard supplements that may be helpful for people with ADHD:
· Multi-vitamins: It would be great if we could get all our vitamins and nutrients though our foods. Unfortunately, that may not be realistic, particularly for people with ADHD who are often thinking about twenty other things besides what’s going in their mouth. Labeling laws for supplements are pretty lax, so look for good quality, non-synthetic vitamins (I like New Chapter or MegaFood, but these brands can be expensive—buying online can be a money-saving option.)
· Omega3 and 6: Found in high concentration in flax and Chia seeds/oils, fish oils, and other supplements, these fatty acids are said to have a powerful effect on the executive function. They are widely accepted as essential for people with ADHD.
· Whey Powder: Add high-quality protein to hot cereal, smoothies and even deserts using Whey. Make sure you add it to foods that are warm or cool, never hot.
· Spirulina and Wheatgrass: Both are unusually dense in vitamins and minerals and easy for your body to absorb. Unfortunately, they can also be expensive.
· Brewer’s Yeast: Deactivated yeast is the same stuff used for baking bread and brewing beer, except that it is dead instead of just dormant. These microorganisms have high levels of B-vitamins, particularly B12, which affect a range of body and brain functions and improve your body’s ability to use other vitamins.