Ask the Nutritionist Q: I've heard that gluten could contribute to behavioral problems in children. Is there really a link? Are there any other diet modifications parents can make to help with things like ADD or ADHD?
A : Current research shows mixed results as to whether avoiding gluten can help behavioral problems in children. Often symptoms of behavioral problems are similar to those symptoms seen in children with celiac disease gluten intolerance. These symptoms may include irritability, fatigue and poor sleep. If your child is having any of these symptoms or other behavioral problems, reach out to your child's pediatrician to be checked for potential celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
A diet high in nutrient-rich foods is the best approach, from a nutrition perspective, to helping with ADD and ADHD. Also, offering regularly timed meals and snacks ensures your child is getting the nutrients they need to nourish their brain and body. Foods that could potentially provide some benefit include fiber from whole grains, fruits and vegetables; folate rich foods like fortified breads, cereals and orange juice; poly-unsaturated fats from avocado, nuts, plant oils and fatty fish. Other nutrients to be aware of are iron, magnesium and zinc, as consuming these nutrients may play a positive role in managing behavior. As always, food is the best source of these nutrients. Vitamin supplements can also be helpful, especially if there is a deficiency or low intake of these nutrients.
Foods to be mindful of offering include those with additives like artificial food colorings, aspartame, MSG, nitrates/nitrites, and refined sugars, as a small amount of children with ADHD have sensitivities to these food additives. My suggestion is to offer whole foods most often and offer foods with additives occasionally. If your child does consume a food with one of the listed additives, be aware of any behavior changes. If you do become aware of changes in their behaviors, this may be a sign to avoid the noted additive completely.
Lauren Sharifi is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and food blogger at biteofhealthnutrition.com. Lauren works in private practice in Brighton at ASF-Peak Health (asfpeakhealth.com) and is passionate about helping individuals and families become competent eaters that find joy out of eating.