Nutritional Approach

Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, in Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante, 1826: “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.” [Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are]. In other words,


This was true in the 1800’s and today as well. It is something we should all live by, whether we face health challenges, mental challenges or emotional challenges. What you put into your body will surely come out in many ways, and not just your waistline. Parents of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD) have suspected a connection between the kinds of foods their children eat and their behavior and symptoms for several years, and now scientific fact has proven it.

Two recent studies have shown a relationship between diet and ADD / ADHD symptoms. One, published in Pediatrics, concluded that pesticides, specifically organophosphates, found on fruits and vegetables may be linked to ADD/ADHD. The higher the levels of the compounds detected in a child’s urine, the more likely the chance of having ADD / ADHD. So what’s the solution? Eat organic, plain and simple! Another study, published in Journal of Attention Disorders, showed that a Western diet which consisted of processed meats, fast foods, high-fat dairy products, and sugary foods, doubled the risk of having an ADD / ADHD diagnosis, compared with eating a healthier diet.

Nutrition affects the ADD / ADHD brain in three ways:
1. Brain cells, like other cells in the body, need proper nutrition to carry out their functions;
2. The myelin sheath, which covers the axons of brain cells, as insulation covers electrical wires, needs the right levels of nutrients to speed transmission of the electrical signals between brain cells;
3. Neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) are dependent on diet for their production.

If the right nutrients aren’t accessible to the brain, its circuits misfire. Read on to find out what nutrients an ADD/ADHD brain needs to function well.

Carbohydrates and ADD / ADHD

Without a doubt, carbohydrates affect brain function and mood in everyone. The rate at which sugar from a particular food enters brain cells, and other cells of the body, is called the Glycemic Index (GI). Foods with a high glycemic index stimulate the pancreas to secrete high levels of insulin, which causes sugar to empty quickly from the blood into the cells. Insulin regulates the ups and downs of blood sugar, and the rollercoaster behavior that sometimes goes with them. Low-glycemic foods deliver a steady supply of sugar, helping a person with ADD / ADHD control behavior and improve performance.

Foods with the best ”brain sugars” include:

Fruits:  Particularly grapefruit, apples, cherries, oranges, and grapes. Fruits have a lower GI than fruit juice, because fiber in fruit slows the absorption of fruit sugar. A whole apple is more brain-friendly than apple juice; a whole orange better than orange juice. The reason for this is the amount of additives and preservatives will negate the whole purpose of eating fruit. The only exception to the rule is if you juice the fruit yourself. For example, if you juice your own apple, put the whole apple through the juicer, especially the peel, and it will be equivalent to a full piece of fruit.

Cereals and Grains:  Principally oatmeal, bran, higher-fiber cereals and pastas. These have a low GI whereas corn flakes and sugarcoated breakfast cereals have higher GIs.

Vegetables and Legumes:   Most vegetables have low GI’s with the exception of potatoes, corn, carrots, beets, turnips and parsnips. Legumes, such as soybeans, kidney beans, and lentils have the lowest GI of any food.

Dairy Products:  Thankfully milk and yogurt have low GI’s, slightly higher than legumes, but lower than fruits. Plain yogurt will, of course, have a lower GI than yogurt with fruit preserves or sugar added.

Fat, Fish Oil, and ADD / ADHD

Believe it or not, fats make up 60 percent of the brain and of the nerves that run every system in the body. The better the fat in the diet, the better the brain will function.
But, most important to brain function are the two essential fatty acids found in fish oil: Linoleic (Omega- 6) and Alpha Linolenic (Omega-3). These are the prime structural components of brain cell membranes, and an important part of the enzymes that allow cell membranes to transport nutrients in and out of cells. Western diets contain far too many omega-6 fatty acids and too few of the omega-3s, which are found in coldwater fish (primarily salmon and tuna), soybeans, walnuts, wheat germ, pumpkin seeds, and eggs. Flaxseed and canola oils are good sources of omega-3’s as well.

“Science has shown that ADDers who have low levels of omega-3s will show the biggest improvement in mental focus and cognitive function when they add more of these healthy fats to their diet,” says Richard Brown, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Protein and ADD / ADHD

Proteins affect brain performance by providing the amino acids from which neurotransmitters are made. Neurotransmitters are biochemical messengers that carry signals from one brain cell to another. Simply, the better you feed these messengers, the more efficiently they deliver the goods, allowing your ADD / ADHD child to be alert at school.

Two amino acids, tryptophan and tyrosine, are precursors of neurotransmitters, the substances from which neurotransmitters are made. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid and, unfortunately, the body does not make it and it must be supplied by the diet. The good news is that the body can make tyrosine if there is not enough in the diet.

These two amino acids influence the four top neurotransmitters – serotonin (which is made from the amino acid tryptophan)dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine (which are made from the amino acid tyrosine). The body automatically makes brain-awakening neurotransmitters when you eat protein, so it’s important to start your day with a breakfast that includes protein. Additionally, remember to include protein in each meal during the day as well. Additionally, and most importantly, protein helps keep blood sugar levels steady, and prevents the mental declines that come from eating a meal containing too many simple carbohydrates.

Vitamins and ADD / ADHD

Studies indicate that children in elementary school whose diets are supplemented with vitamins and minerals scored higher on intelligence tests than those who took no supplements. Here are some specific vitamins and minerals that affect behavior and learning in children and adults:

Vitamin C is required by the brain to make neurotransmitters. In fact, the brain has a special vitamin c “pump,” which draws extra vitamin c out of the blood into the brain.

Vitamin B6 deficiency causes irritability and fatigue. Adequate levels of the vitamin increase the brain’s levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, increasing alertness.

Iron is necessary for making dopamine. One small study showed ferritin levels (a measure of iron stores) to be low in 84 percent of ADD / ADHD children, compared to 18 percent of a control group. Low iron levels correlate with severe ADD / ADHD.

Zinc regulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, and may make methylphenidate more effective by improving the brain’s response to dopamine. Low levels of this mineral correlate with inattention.

5 Balanced ADD / ADHD Breakfasts

A nutrition-packed breakfast should contain a balance of complex carbohydrates and protein. Think grains, plus dairy, plus fruits.

For example:

1. Granola cereal, yogurt, sliced apple
2. Scrambled eggs, whole-grain toast, orange
3. Veggie omelet, bran muffin, fresh fruit with yogurt
4. Whole-grain pancakes or waffles topped with berries and/or yogurt, milk
5. Low-fat cheese melted on wholegrain toast, pear

For more information, please contact Karen Ryan at