Diet and Nutrition for Learning & Behaviour - Our Experience
Rachael Allan is a nutrition coach specialising in children’s diet for learning and behaviour and helping mums feel super!
I still remember the day my daughter told me she should repeat a year at school. I was walking her back to her classroom after she had attended private tutoring in her lunch hour. It was a lovely winter’s day - the sun was shining on our backs. Looking down at the ground she said, quietly “Mum, I think I should stay in year five again next year.” I was stunned for a moment. I got her to look at me and explain why she thought that. As it turned out, a boy in her class that year was repeating year five himself, which gave her the idea that she should too. I hadn’t realised until then how much she was struggling to keep up. In the next school holidays, we got her assessed and it was confirmed that she has dyslexia.
Meanwhile our son (then 6 ½) had just been diagnosed with ADHD. Since kindy we knew that there was something ‘different’ about him – he seemed happy but had no interest in making friends. In his early primary school years impulsivity was the main issue – he’d misinterpret situations and react without stopping to think first. It made me angry hearing others describe him as a “naughty” boy – he just seemed to make a lot of wrong choices. Whilst he could hyperfocus on something that interested him, he found it hard concentrating on schoolwork and collating his thoughts. He also found following instructions difficult - I’d often send him to brush his teeth before school and find him playing in his bedroom. Not disobedient – just easily distracted.
Three years later we also found out he is highly gifted with dysgraphia on top of his ADHD.
So - at the same time - we were dealing with the learning struggles of my daughter and the behavioural challenges of my son. It was a very tough year; there were moments of denial of the diagnoses, many tears and asking ourselves (and God) why us and why we didn’t have “normal” children. Of course, I wouldn’t change our two for anything!!!
As parents, none of us want to see our kids struggling. We all want our children to have a healthy amount of confidence in themselves – unique individuals – for them to be in a position to put their best foot forward and to have good academic and emotional intelligence, and ultimately grow up to succeed in life, both in their chosen profession and relationships.
I researched. And I was particularly drawn to how diet and nutrition can affect learning and behaviour. I have since seen first-hand the changes it makes and it’s now my passion. I am happy to share with you seven of the changes we made.
(I’ll note here too that we did put our son on medication for his ADHD, but that was not the one answer to everything like we were lead to believe, which is why I continued to search for other strategies).
- No Additives (artificial colours, flavours and preservatives)
Some additives can be harmless, even beneficial. But many are linked to concentration difficulties, learning difficulties, behavioural problems, hyperactivity and aggressive behaviour.
In particular we have noticed sausages, bacon and ham (all which have nitrates in them) make our son less compliant (putting it nicely). We now make our own sausages, and use only Hendersons preservative free bacon. Ham is an occasional treat only.
Red colouring is a biggie for our boy. We have noticed our son become both verbally and physically aggressive after consuming something with this additive, so try to avoid at all costs. It is usually found in lollies; for the occasional treat we prefer the Natural Confectionery Company.
Aspartame (an artificial sweetener) is another additive we avoid as it increases our son’s “busyness”. I remember letting my son have Coke Zero one morning as a reward after being good at a paediatrician appointment, thinking “No sugar – that’s got to be a good thing.” My son has never been so hyperactive in his life!! It was then I did more research!
I continue to have the Hoppers List Of Additives To Avoid (https://bit.ly/2p310GL) printed out and kept in my wallet as a quick reference tool.
- High Protein
Protein-rich foods are used by the brain to make neurotransmitters. These are what help the brain cells to communicate with each other, including regulating the strength and nature of our emotions, and our ability to sustain attention. The better you feed these messengers, the more efficient they are, allowing your child to be calmer and more alert at school. Protein can also prevent surges in blood sugar (which can look like hyperactivity).
Protein doesn’t necessarily have to mean meat. High amounts of protein are also included in legumes (peas, beans, lentils), dairy or soy (cheese, yoghurt, milk), eggs, nuts and seeds including quinoa and brown rice.
For us increasing protein meant adding more protein into breakfast and after-school snacks, as well as lunch. Some of the changes we made were having peanut butter on multigrain toast and some yoghurt for breakfast. Or fried egg strips (with a bit of organic soy sauce) and brown basmati rice. I also have a tasty, refined sugar free bubble crunch cereal I make with quinoa puffs. For snacks, nut-based bliss balls are fantastic (just watch the amount of dried fruit in them). And smoothies are also an easy way to increase protein.
- Fewer Simple Carbohydrates
Simple carbs have a high glycemic index (GI) which means they break down quickly by the body causing blood sugar to rise quickly (often seen as hyperactivity). The body then responds by producing insulin and other hormones that drive sugar down to too-low levels causing the release of stress hormones. The result? After a high GI breakfast - by mid-morning - your child is tired, irritable, and stressed out. This can worsen ADHD symptoms or make some non-ADHD children act like they have the condition.
When you think of simple carbs you automatically think of sugar, honey, maple syrup etc. Fruit juices are also simple carbs – as the fibre has been removed. Products made from white flour (including pasta, crackers, biscuits and bread) and white rice are also simple carbs, with the same effects.
- More Complex Carbohydrates
Complex carbs are high in fibre and low-glycemic, which means they deliver a steady supply of sugar (energy), helping children control behaviour and improve performance.
We now try to include wholegrain foods with very meal. This could be bread, pasta and cereals made with WHOLE grains like millet, oats, wheatgerm, barley, wild rice, brown rice, buckwheat, amaranth and quinoa. Vegetables are also complex carbs. And some fruits including oranges, apples, kiwifruit, apricots, plums, prunes and strawberries. Plus legumes (again) are another great option.
- More Omega-3
Fats make up 60 percent of the brain. The better the fat in the diet, the better the brain will function. Most important to brain function are the two essential fatty acids omega-6 and omega‑3. Western diets contain too many omega-6 fatty acids and too few of the omega-3s.
Some sources of omega 3 fatty acids are coldwater fish (tuna, salmon), walnuts, brazil nuts and olive oil.
Another easy option is to supplement with fish oil. When choosing a brand look out for any mercury detected (not just tested for) and consider the ratio of EPA to DHA. I recommend using a product with about 1 ½ x as much EPA as DHA. I do not recommend using a product containing only DHA or EPA. Studies indicate that it is important for ADHD children to have both. DHA plays a crucial role in the formative phase of brain development but EPA is the one which impacts cognition and emotional health. Supplements with higher amounts of DHA are recommended for pregnant women and small children. But, once a person reaches school-age, it’s EPA that’s going to make the difference. Liquid or capsule forms of omega-3 fatty acids are best. The gummy and chewable versions have lower amounts of EPA and DHA.
- Vitamin and Mineral Supplementation
Unfortunately, we no longer get all the micronutrients we need from diet alone. The nutritional content of our fruit and vegetables has declined significantly due to depleted nutrients in the soils they are grown, spraying, being fertilised for fast growth (rather than nutrition), being picked early, cold-stored and then artificially ripened; not to mention often sitting in the supermarket, or in our fruit bowl or fridge for days before being eaten.
Several studies show that the level of key nutrients like magnesium, zinc and B vitamins are lower in children with ADHD.
- Adequate levels of magnesium have a calming effect on the brain. Things like hyperactivity, excessive fidgeting, tantrums, social difficulties, irritability, aggressiveness, and poor attention span are all linked to a deficiency in magnesium.
- Zinc synthesizes the neurotransmitter dopamine. Low levels of zinc correlate with inattention. Adding zinc to the diets of teenagers has been shown improve memory and attention span.
- B vitamins, especially B6 and B12, are vital to the development of the nervous system and the production of neurotransmitters in the brain. They are also responsible for blood sugar regulation. Symptoms of Vitamin B deficiency include short attention span and irritability. Studies show supplementing may improve IQ scores, and reduce aggression and antisocial behaviour.
Our daughter used to be in tears over her homework. She struggled with even understanding the instructions, let alone coming up with the answers. I’d see her sitting at the dining table holding her head in her hands in frustration. I’d have to help her work her way through everything, and often used rewards as motivation. She’s a perfectionist who wants to do well and it was upsetting seeing schoolwork such a battle for her. I noticed a few months after adding supplementation that she was no longer having the mental struggles and was just getting it done!!! Asking me the odd spelling word, which is fine – she does have dyslexia!!
Nowadays my daughter is 13 and managing Senior High very independently. She is in the top Maths class of her year and is achieving great grades, including English. She continues to have wonderful behaviour and has thoughts of being a writer when she grows up (pretty cool for someone with dyslexia).
For my son the changes we noticed were very gradual. His grandparents, who would only see him every couple of months, would comment on his better behaviour. For us, the fact that supplementation was making a difference – particularly with regard to him controlling his emotions - was proven when he went four days without his supplements while I was away on a work trip. I got home and had the worst Monday with him EVER (even before ADHD medication). We had holes in doors and a broken tablet screen and just anger I had never seen in him for such a prolonged period. Just 1 ½ days back on his supplements and he was back to his now normal, calmer self.
- Food Allergies/Intolerances –
A number of research studies have shown that many children with ADHD-type behaviours are sensitive to certain common foods in the diet. These sensitivities make their behavioural challenges significantly worse. Most common are dairy, wheat and soy.
This is something we haven’t fully looked into yet, but I will add with regards to dyslexia that caffeine (whether in caffeinated beverages, including cola and iced tea, or chocolate and chocolate drinks) has stimulating effects on the brain, which may make thought processing more difficult for children with dyslexia.
This insight stemmed from my daughter’s tutor. Our daughter had additional one-on-one tutoring for many of her primary school years, usually in her lunch hour on a Friday. One such day when I picked her up, her tutor commented that my daughter had achieved nothing in that session, which was very unusual for her. She questioned what she’d eaten that morning. I found out that my daughter had been rewarded a chocolate Freddo frog at school that day and eaten it at morning tea time. Mystery solved!
She has great self-control, so now keeps anything chocolate for when she doesn’t have school work to do. And otherwise has carob which is caffeine free, and naturally sweet.
If you have any questions or would appreciate some help making some of the changes Rachael mentions, please email her at or phone/text 027 433 0640. She is also on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nutritiousmum