Although millions of Americans are increasingly becoming aware of nutrition’s vital role in cardiovascular health, blood pressure regulation, and blood sugar control, that same paradigm is nowhere near as widespread when it comes to learning and comprehension disabilities.
For this guest post, I asked Judy Converse, an established expert on the subject matter, to provide an overview of how proper — and improper! — nutrition can affect children with ADD, dyslexia, and other conditions she commonly works with in her private practice.
Guest Post by Judith Converse, MPH, RD, LD:
“We know that nutritious, whole foods are important for babies, toddlers, and young children. But what happens with conditions like attention deficit diagnoses (ADD or ADHD), dyslexia, anxiety, or autism? Most physicians invoke a seemingly universal mantra that there’s “no proof” that nutrients, diets, or food play a role here. They are quick to prescribe stimulants, SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) or other psychotropic medications. To make matters worse, parents are marketed many unhealthy, highly processed foods that often worsen these conditions with hooks like “it’s good nutrition”, “part of a good breakfast”, or “packed with calcium”.
Food and nutrition are crucial, whether children have autism or freckles, whether their breakfast is fluorescent cereal with pink sugar milk or a fresh fruit smoothie with healthful fats. Nutrition doesn’t stop being important when a child gets a developmental or learning diagnosis. In fact, it becomes more important.
With or without prescription drugs, food fuels children’s brains. A child’s growing body will grab what it can for best functioning, no matter what is eaten or how poorly it’s absorbed. Vitamins, minerals, and many food components we don’t yet consider “nutrients” (like phytochemicals and antioxidants) support brain chemistry pathways; amino acids (from protein) ebb and flow as neurotransmitters like glutamate, GABA (Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid), serotonin, or dopamine in the nervous system; fats and oils build cell membranes that operate signal gates for these functional chemicals.
Simply put, food supports or inhibits learning, functioning, and behavior. For example:
- Healthy fats and oils are literally brain building for kids. I’m often surprised how many kids in my practice eat fat-poor diets – total fat intakes are too low, or the majority of their fats are highly processed (corn oil, cottonseed oil) and artificial (trans fats). The fix: Add varied whole food organic sources like avocado, eggs, nuts/seeds and their butters, olive oil, flax seed or flax oil, cod liver oil, unprocessed coconut oil, or grass fed meats, poultry, or dairy sources.
- Dyslexia, focus, and visual tracking showed significant improvement in children given at least 400 IU docosahexaenoic acid (DHA omega 3 fatty acid) daily. The fix: Add that or more with a high purity, contaminant-free fish oil supplement. I often suggest 800-2000 mg daily of mixed DHA and EPA for children in my practice who have ADHD or autism. Also, eat small amounts daily in food: Flax seed or flax oil, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, organic eggs with high omega 3 content, kale, sea vegetables, non-GMO edamame (soy beans), Brussel sprouts, or fish in moderation (some families opt out of fish altogether to avoid mercury).
- The most challenged kids in my practice for ADHD tend to eat the most processed food and added sugars. Replace marginally nutritious, sugar-added foods with brain-supporting foods (i.e.: instead of a Pop-Tart, start the day with banana slices topped with almond butter and cinnamon). The fix: Toss breakfast cereals, toaster waffles, chicken nuggets, sport drinks, juice blends, cheese crackers, energy bars – anything with hidden sources of added sugar – and replace with whole food versions.
- Marginal iron status is linked to problems with learning, especially math tasks. It also drops mood, focus, sleep, and cognition, and makes kids more irritable and hyper. Pediatricians can rule out iron depletion, which emerges before outright anemia, by checking a child’s ferritin level. Though pediatric reference ranges consider a ferritin as low as 10 as acceptable, children seem to function much better with ferritin levels at 30 or above. The fix: Include iron-rich foods include pumpkin seeds, lentils, red meats, lima or kidney beans, black rice, or organic grass fed meats.
There are dozens of nutrition possibilities that impact learning and developmental concerns in kids. Besides those, chronic conditions (asthma, allergies, frequent illness/infections, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel diseases, epilepsy) also influence what’s eaten, how it’s absorbed, and how the brain uses it.
Get nutrition problems off your child’s desk before medicating for attention, mood, anxiety, or focus – because psychiatric medications can’t fix nutrition problems!
Judy Converse, MPH, RD, LD has worked as a research technician, nutrition educator, grant writer, and outpatient dietitian, and now has her own practice. Her professional path was most informed by her son’s many challenges with feeding, growth, and development. She created the first web-based, accredited learning module on nutrition and autism for dietitians and nurses, testified before state and federal lawmakers for safer vaccines, consulted with industry partners on specialized formulas for infants and children with inflammatory conditions, and has also assisted non-profits and hospitals serving children with special needs.