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Fuel Or Fury?

Food’s Impact on Children with Learning and Attention Difficulties

Everywhere you turn there is advice about the latest truth or trend in nutrition and food. New diets, new supplements, new research, and new experts bombard us on every media outlet. The information overload is not only confusing – it is often completely contradictory – making our understanding of food’s impact on children with learning and attention difficulties feel even less clear.

What we know for certain is that food has a significant impact on weight, cardiac health, energy, and well-being. More recent research has made the connection to food and brain health, and hundreds of articles and research studies are looking at the link between children’s diet and their ability to focus, self-regulate and succeed at school.

As a parent or educator of a Complex Learner, gaining some understanding of what nutrition best helps children regulate their bodies and improve cognition is an important piece of the treatment puzzle. Here are a few areas to consider and investigate further as you work to address the impact of diet on your children or students.

On Top of Your “A” Game

Food additives have been in the spotlight for many years now, highlighting research that demonstrates the adverse effects of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, and preservatives on children’s behavior. There isn’t complete agreement on the efficacy of the research, however, some artificial colorings are now banned in several European countries, and “elimination” diets or “few foods” diets have made a significant difference for some children with ADHD. While researchers have not been able to identify the subgroup of children this treatment works best for, it is generally considered a good idea to avoid artificial additives as much as possible by focusing on “whole” foods that are mostly found in the perimeter of the grocery store (fruits and vegetables, dairy, meat) and reading labels to determine the quantity and quality of ingredients.

Food & Mood

When people say they are “hangry” (so hungry they are angry!) we immediately understand that to manage their short temper, lack of patience or bad mood they need to eat! This vernacular puts food and emotion together in a way that legitimizes the link many researchers are making between food and behavior. Simple carbohydrates (e.g., white bread), gluten, sugar, fast food, fried food, dairy and a host of other foods have been implicated in causing depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.

Insomnia, lack of concentration, mood swings, and frequent negative outbursts are common symptoms of Complex Learners, and while research is mixed, the possibility that a healthy, balanced diet could make a noticeable difference in some of these behavioral problems makes it worth looking towards food as an area of focus. Basic principles that are often suggested include small frequent healthy meals, drinking lots of water, and eating fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy sources of protein.

From Omega-3 to Vitamin B

Supplements are an important strategy to consider for children with learning and attention difficulties. While a lot of the research in single vitamin supplements has not borne out, the use of Broad Spectrum Micronutrients (BSM) has shown promise. These studies are done mostly with ADHD children who are not using medication, so it isn’t clear what dosage and combination of minerals and vitamins is best suited for each individual. It is important to discuss the use of BSM with your child’s pediatrician and other practitioners.

Omega-3 is often lower in children with ADHD and supplementation studies of omega-3 fatty acids have demonstrated at least a modest improvement in symptoms. It seems reasonable that the use of supplements that provide the nutritional building blocks needed for optimal brain functioning can offer positive results alongside other therapies.

It is clear that food has a significant impact on a child’s health and well-being, but it is not always clear how to find the connections between what children eat and how they behave and learn. Doing your own reading of books and articles related to nutrition, working with your child’s pediatrician, and observing your child’s mood and reaction after eating particular foods will provide helpful guidance. Do you have other strategies for keeping your child fueled and self-regulated with food?

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