Learning disorders are the fastest growing childhood disorder in the United States, affecting 9 to10 percent of all school-aged children. ADD and ADHD are disorders of the central nervous system that have documented links to diet. Development of a healthy nervous system depends upon appropriate nutrition. Diet is a great area where parents can take action to help their children.
When working with a learning disorder or behavior problems, diet is one of the first places to look. How much sugar is in the diet? Learn to read labels. One teaspoon of sugar is 4 grams by weight. Many breakfast cereals and bars have 16 to 20 grams of sugar. That is 4 to5 teaspoons. Sodas have around 9 teaspoons of sugar. Juices, even 100% juice, are also sources of sugar with roughly 5 to 8 teaspoons of sugar per serving. Take out a cup measure and fill it with the amount of sugar your child consumes on an average day. It may be surprising to you. Also nearly as important to monitor are the starchy foods that convert easily to sugar in the body. These include white potatoes and foods made with white flour such as pasta and crackers.
Food allergies are another place to look for causes of behavior problems. Common allergens are dairy, wheat, and corn. Some allergies are actually caused by nutritional deficiencies. For instance, wheat allergy generally comes into balance when you supplement magnesium and essential fatty acids. Notice what happens after your child eats certain foods, especially those that are consumed daily. Consider rotating common foods out of the diet so that they are eaten only 2-3 times per week. (Yes, this takes lots of planning.)
Other sources of problems are the additives and preservatives in convenience foods. MSG, hydrolyzed vegetable protein and the sweetener aspartame (NutraSweet) are classified as excitotoxins, meaning that they are so stimulating to the nervous system that they literally excite the cells to death. Whether you are a child or an adult, these substances should be avoided since they destroy valuable cells within the brain.
In terms of nutrients not in the standard American diet, look to Omega 3 oils such as flax seed or fish oil supplements. These oils are critical to proper brain and nerve development. Many learning disorders disappear when flax seed oil or fish oil is added to a balanced diet.
It may also be helpful to add a high quality vitamin with whole foods and trace minerals to help fill some of the nutritional gaps that may be in a child’s diet.
Stick to real foods like meat, vegetables and whole grains. Vegetables are very important since they help the body neutralize and eliminate the foods we tend to eat too much of. A good diet with some basic supplements will help a child in many ways, not just behavior and learning.
Margaret Durst owns The Green House, a vitamin, herb and health food store in Mason, Texas.