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Secrets of diet and adhd

The Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Support Group of Southern Africa (ADHASA) was founded on the principles of dietary intervention for children with ADD or hyperactivity and, nearly twenty years later, this remains the foundation of all that we do. We have always encouraged families to go on the same diet as the child and at first were surprised to hear of the extent to which other family members had benefited. Slowly it dawned upon us that the diet we recommend is not just a diet for children and adults affected by ADHD, it is a healthier eating lifestyle for just about everyone – especially if unnecessary additives and a few other substances are regularly eaten. Our bodies are affected by what goes into them. A diet of fresh foods, not highly processed, gives our body the opportunity to create and recreate itself – overall functioning improves including health, general mood, behaviour, and academic abilities. Everyone is affected - some just more than others.

A diet of junk food, or one that includes many additives, too much sugar and frequent fried foods cannot give the body the nutrients it needs. Many of the additives also have their own unfortunate effect on the body and they also ‘rob’ the body of many nutrients in its effort to process and get rid of them. Maurice Hanssen’s well-known book E for Additives gives examples, and support groups world wide have recognised more.

For example, calcium propionate is now used in bread because it is a mould inhibitor and so bread stays fresher for longer, which obviously reduces the costs for bakeries and is a convenience for anyone who buys the bread. Ever since the early nineties when South African bakeries were first allowed to use calcium propionate, ADHASA has recommended sourcing and buying bread without it because we suspect that it affects children who wet their pants or their beds, children who twitch, and concentration. More recently we have had reports of children whose tendency to wild mood swings decreased when the calcium propionate is removed, and we have had similar reports from Australia.

In general improvements are part of the overall dietary – or healthy eating – process but the interesting thing is that specific symptoms may return with the introduction of different additives. In particular we noticed the mood swings returning when anything containing calcium propionate was eaten. (Sugar is preferable to synthetic sweeteners. It should be used in moderation and never be eaten on an empty tummy. If fructose is used, this should only be in small quantities. We recommend that a child should not have more than two teaspoons of fructose a day and this includes the fructose in his supplements, yoghurts, biscuits and sweets.) Unfortunately we usually don’t recognise the reactions to different additives or the effects of certain nutrient deficiencies.

We often blame the child for fidgeting, being controlling or argumentative, being an underactive couch potato, or being totally overactive, whinging, not taking responsibility, or having wild mood swings. Certain symptoms of ADHD are increasingly being linked to specific nutrient deficiencies, and correcting them has often changed the life of the child and that of his family. Most of the ADHD population have very sensitive bodies and are likely to react to very small quantities of additives in their systems. So they have to eliminate all synthetic colourants, synthetic flavourants, calcium propionate, antioxidant preservatives, and most fried foods from their diet.

It may take a long time for nutrient levels to build up and so supplementation (EFAs, vitamins and minerals) can make a tremendous difference. ADHASA has always recommended that supplementation should be to support healthy eating habits rather than the other way around. In addition to the EFAs, we generally recommend that parents focus on using multivitamin and mineral supplements because they usually don’t have the knowledge of which combinations work together, and which combinations should be avoided. However, certain symptoms are indicative of particular nutrient deficiencies. Another very important aspect of a healthier eating lifestyle is that of stabilizing blood glucose levels.

Wildly fluctuating blood glucose levels affect many things including mood, aggression, the ability to concentrate, constant eating, and craving for sweets and biscuits. We often see this with children who have medication in the mornings, who can’t eat their lunch (medication is often an appetite suppressant) and then come home late in the afternoon and don’t stop eating until supper which they then don’t want. Finding ways to stabilize blood glucose levels could go a long way to reduce this behaviour. Tuck shops can play a critical role in the life of schools. Depending upon the foods sold they may:

  • Contribute to the overall health levels of the children at the school and in the process increase
    attendance, improve concentration, decrease bullying and aggressive behaviour. All this makes
    life far easier for the teachers and children. The interesting thing is that the worst behaved
    children usually show the most improvement.
    Or tuckshops may:
  • Undermine the functioning of children in schools, aggravating their difficulties, and also
    making it far difficult for any parents who are trying to keep unnecessary additives out of their
    children’s lives.

Initially healthier food may seem to be more expensive, but in the long run it could be the most cost effective thing that a school could do to increase overall functioning and performance of both its pupils and staff. Lunch boxes can be a nightmare and many teachers are educating their children about healthy lunches and refusing to allow additive laden products into their class. It would be so much easier if the school refused to allow certain products onto the premises. This doesn’t mean that children are to be deprived of sweets and other treats, rather that they do not eat anything containing the additives most likely to cause a problem. Embracing the principles of healthier eating habits initially may seem very difficult.

However it becomes much easier if there is understanding of the many symptoms of ADHD and how food affects all concerned. Often people are demoralized because they don’t recognise or understand that certain improvements they see are linked to the dietary work they are doing. They often think that they are imagining them anyway. Experience has shown that if they persevere, and manage to cross the initial hurdles of dietary intervention and understanding the condition of ADHD, they soon realize that life can be far easier and a lot more fun. Healthy eating then becomes very important in their lives.

Can you outgrow attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?

Although many people with ADHD (around 50%) have a reduction in symptoms during adolescence and adulthood, only a few people no longer have any symptoms. Many still continue to have problems following conversations, forgetting assignments, wedding anniversaries, birthdays, being disorganised, shopping or gambling impulsively, switching jobs often, have relationship problems, or procrastinating. Often more secondary problems like low self-esteem, anxiety and depression start to manifest during adolescence and adulthood.

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