The link between childhood nutrition and ADHD

By Tessa Jillson


Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist Jill Castle discussed how children diagnosed with ADHD can have trouble eating and food sensitivities in her talk on Oct. 12 in the Forum.


One of her clients, a 6-year-old girl diagnosed with ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder constantly craved sugar and was always hungry – her behavior deteriorating with hunger. Castle said by creating structured meals, each meal containing some form of protein, the child’s mood and sleeping habits had noticeably improved within a week.


Castle’s findings correspond with other case studies, including a clinical investigation on the effects of probiotic supplementation early in life, which found that 17 percent of the children in the placebo group were later in life diagnosed with ADHD. No one in the probiotic group was diagnosed. According to Castle, the study proves probiotics may have a significant role in preventing the development of ADHD.


Katie Gregoire, mother of two children diagnosed with ADHD, said, “I’m curious how medication affects my children’s appetite. ... Anything that will assist them with their medication is helpful.”


Comorbidities, or two disorders presented simultaneously, are common in patients who have ADHD, Castle said. ADHD is often paired with appetite issues, obesity, sleep problems, defiant behavior, depression, anxiety and sensory conditions.


“Picky eating and lowered appetite can have an impact on a child’s nutritional status,” Castle said. “It can delay their growth, it can reduce their weight and it can contribute to nutrient deficiencies, which can complicate treatment and affect the outcomes of treatment.”


ADHD is usually treated with medications that often reduce a child’s appetite, and Castle said 60 percent of children report reduced appetites.


“We don’t have research that says diet can cure ADHD, but what we do know is that enhancing nutrition can help a child function better and can actually help medication work better,” Castle said. “I say to my clients all the time, ‘the brain needs a bath of nutrients.’”


Castle said, “Feeding and parenting styles influence how well a child eats.” Pressuring a child to eat, rewarding a child for eating with dessert and punishing a child for not eating can “backfire,” causing the child to further reject food.


Castle works with parents to improve their food-parenting skills to implement positive eating and manage outbursts. She encourages parents to create a “food chain” if their child is an extremely picky eater.


“We figure out what kids are eating and what they like and then we make a little chain or bridge to another food, or a new food that is similar in characteristics. So, for example, if a child will eat chicken nuggets, we might try shredded rotisserie chicken,” Castle said.


Keeping track of what a child does and does not eat can help nutritionists better treat a child’s

condition, Castle said. A parent should seek out a pediatric endocrinologist to make sure there’s no growth hormone deficiencies.


Castle said, “We’re not really digging in to Hgure out what the root of the cause is and we need to do that – as professionals, as clinicians, as individuals who are working with children, to see what’s really going on and not just put a band aid over it, but really figure out why this is happening to this child.”

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