ADHD, Sugar, and Protein
Can a healthy diet help ADD/ADHD symptoms?
"There is another suspect in the room that could be confused with ADHD- the blood sugar curve. As a nutritionist, this is the trigger I am most excited to educate on because for the most part it is preventable through nutrition."
The definitions of ADHD/ADD are insidious and ambiguous, offering more of a checklist than a solid definition. The diagnosis can appear to be a catch-all for troubled and troublesome children and adults that don’t have anywhere else to turn. The CDC, American Psychiatric Association and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders have unified their definition of ADHD/ADD. While these were two separate diagnoses until 1994, they now both fall under Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Contingent on symptoms, there may also be an “impulsive” or “inattentive” element added in place of or in addition to “hyperactive”.
All too often I think it is dangerous to label a human like this without searching for the roots first, as labels can be confining and limiting as a stand-alone. Once a child or adult places themselves in a category of ailment or illness, it doesn’t credit their individual actions and can become a daily narrative that manifests itself through pattern. “I have ADD” can make a person feel powerless, as if there is nothing they can do to help it- and no one wants to feel helpless.
I don’t mean to discredit the disorder, and I have encountered people in my life that truly struggle with ADHD and in my youth, I checked off all of the boxes required to be medicated for ADHD. Can you believe the ease of which we will prescribe amphetamines to children who are already struggling? I was never medicated for ADHD, but I struggled through school trying to force focus. My motivation for this blog is the thinking that we need to be really careful when putting young children inside of a box or label that could help to define the rest of their life when there may be other triggers for inattention, hyperactivity and impulsive behaviors that we can nurture and heal.
By nature, children can be all of these diagnostic adjectives, and I would bet that all humans have experiences of hyperactivity, inattentiveness and impulsivity at some point or another in their lives. We must be careful not to confuse these words with curiosity, the excessive energy children seem to have, overwhelming excitement and more that comes with the magic of being a child. The DSM is careful to note that these symptoms of ADHD are experienced “often” - a word that is ambiguous in its own rite. I think the point they are trying to make is that the symptoms are a distraction to the child’s well-being and progression in development or that of others around them.
Blood Sugar and ADHD
For the focus of this blog, I want to turn the spotlight on blood sugar. To be clear, I am not trying to discredit ADHD as a real phenomenon, I am merely saying there are other triggers for this kind of behavior. Examples would be a child who has a troubled home life or isn’t getting the attention that they require to feel seen and loved. There is another suspect in the room that could be confused with ADHD- the blood sugar curve. As a nutritionist, this is the trigger I am most excited to educate on because for the most part it is preventable through nutrition. There is no better time to use nutrition as preventative healthcare, than childhood.
While we know that overconsumption of sugar has plagued our country with diabetes and heart disease, we don't talk enough about detrimental side effects and misdiagnoses our children are experiencing due to overconsumption. An unhealthy blood sugar curve can result in, you guessed it:
1. Hyperactivity 2. Inattentiveness 3. Impulsivity.
Imagine if your child was able to remove these labels and start nurturing a curious spirit with more focus. Learning would be easier, time-outs and “naughtiness” stigmas disappear, and your child is able to thrive.
Quickly, let’s have a look at blood sugar curves so we are all on the same page. When you eat food, any kind of food, your blood sugar levels rise in the blood. The sugar is used by your body for basic functions to create energy, and what is left over is stored as fat. Rightfully, obesity gets a lot of attention in the mainstream - learn more about the process here and here.
The Consequences of Unhealthy Blood Sugar
Below are two blood sugar curves, one fueled by excess sugar, and the other is more balanced. The green curve represents healthy blood-sugar, and the red is a spike and crash roller coaster, caused by excess sugar consumption.
Unhealthy blood sugar curves cause more than obesity - they are responsible for the same behaviors attributed to ADHD. According to Mental Health America, countless medical professionals and science, when your blood sugars rise to high levels you may experience: Restlessness, anxiety, trouble thinking clearly, fatigue and mood swings. Hmmmmmm.
When we consume too much sugar, we experience a spike followed by a sharper crash resulting in low blood sugar. The symptoms of low blood sugar are: nervousness, anxiety, irritability, confusion, hunger and more. Do you see what I am getting at? Considering the unicorn advertising of the “Gogurt” my son was begging me for at the store recently had 29 grams of sugar, and the average ADULT recommended intake is 24 grams of sugar IN A WHOLE DAY…I’d say we have a problem.
We need to aim for more moderate blood sugar curves to avoid these symptoms.
It is HARD as a parent to make sure your kids are getting the food they need. Food is expensive today, and even if you get the right foods, getting your kids to eat them is a whole other topic! Even if you control what you can at home and tow the line at the grocery store when every turn offers bright colored cartoon characters at a kid's eye level, our culture is so ingrained with sugar consumption, you’ll hardly avoid Dum Dum offerings at the bank and cookies at preschool. So what do we do?
How To Balance Your Kid's Blood Sugar
Protein, fats and fiber help keep us full longer and support healthy blood sugar. Make sure your kid isn’t just eating carbohydrates. I do not think carbs are evil, in fact lettuce is a carbohydrate, and I think that the fear of carbs is its own diagnoses. BUT, carbohydrates should be mindfully paired with a protein, fat, fiber or all three. Why?
- Through evolution, our brain was trained to gorge on carbohydrates when we found them in nature. We were nomadic and in constant search for food. Sometimes finding food meant burning calories we didn’t have to spare. This is where the fat storage mechanism was advantageous for survival. We would find a good source of carbs through fruit, roots or something else entirely, and then store the extra in our fatty tissues to be mobilized in times where food wasn’t plentiful and available.
- NOW- carbohydrates are affordable and available on the shelves of gas stations, markets, checkout lines at ACE Hardware, you name it. And sugary sweets- well, you should know that I want my family to enjoy ice cream cones on a hot day, and birthday cake, and popsicles… But the way sugar is readily available at every corner at a low cost is causing a serious problem that no one wants to fix because it feeds incredible profit into the pockets of doctors and pharmaceutical companies alike. The sugary sweets we encounter today aren't berries and roots, they are high fructose corn syrup void of fiber, fat or protein.
- Make sweets treats! You can use them as incentives in parenting, and make them into something we look forward to, not something to be regularly consumed. Remember that saying “no” can be painful, but the addictive cycle of sugar consumption will lead to more frequent melt downs in the long run.
- Pair sweets and sugary foods with protein, fat and fiber. There is NOTHING wrong with a PB&J! The jelly can be delivered with the protein and fat of the peanut butter (try getting some peanut butter without sugar- another place they hide it!) and the fiber of the bread (try whole wheat, it has less sugar and more fiber, minerals and vitamins!).
Start the day right - make breakfast the healthiest meal of the day. Sending your kid to school with protein, fat and fiber in the belly instead of sugary cereal can help foster their curious spirit and aid with focus and ability to learn.
- I would love to add that sugary cereal can feel like a win, kids love it and will eat it up without a fight, and the price is right. Flavored yogurt also boasts incredible sugar volume- try plain yogurt and you can sweeten with fresh fruit after adding granola with nuts and oats for protein and fiber.
Don’t keep sweets in the house. If they aren’t there- they can’t be eaten and they can’t be a source of desire. I promise you that if your child is otherwise healthy- they will eat! Hunger strikes can push boundaries and seek control, but ultimately your child will get hungry and eat what you put in front of them. The work may seem hard initially, but it is well worthwhile, and for a parent who is concerned about an ADHD diagnosis and trouble at school, what is there to lose?
- Already have some habits that feel like they would be impossible to break? I get it, diet is a place where we can turn a blind eye and not engage in another opportunity for the psychological warfare that is raising children. Something that has been helpful to me is the psychology of food research finding that: It takes children 8 times seeing a new food to accept it into their diet. This likely stems from a survival mechanism to avoid foods that aren’t familiar that could be harmful or poisonous. So, stick with it, and keep showing foods that are healthy- even if they aren’t getting eaten YET. Put a little bit of the new food on the plate, and you can plan on eating it later, mom and dad. Your perseverance will be rewarded when your children are enjoying healthy fruits and vegetables as a part of their regular diet.
- AND the best part? You can fold it into existing recipes they like to add protein and even out a blood sugar curve, and they won’t notice. I put it into my kid’s smoothies, oatmeal, granola and yogurt, and I bake with it to make muffins and breads that have extra protein. Try banana bread with ¼ cup of our chocolate protein powder!
- If your kid needs a little fooling to get those healthy foods in, great- but generally kids think it is super fun and novel to eat crickets. It makes the dining experience an adventure and more of a fun activity than a painful slog. Try it out!
The Bottom Line
So that is all I have to say about that. I hope that this is helpful to moms and dads who are doing their best in the world to raise good humans. In a world that has plenty of parenting obstacles and challenges, we can all use a break here and there. If diet is something that can turn your child’s inattentive and distracted or disturbing behavior in the school room into behavior that supports learning and a peaceful mind- why the hell not, right? I hope this has been educational, and also offers some tips worth trying out. And maybe your child doesn’t have ADHD after all, and it is just a wild and crazy blood sugar rollercoaster that we need to stop feeding gravity!