printer-friendly version   Printer-Friendly Version  

ADHD Diet: Low Sugar, High Protein

In order to understand how a low-sugar, high-protein diet can benefit children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, we need to go through a brief discussion on brain chemistry and function. The brain makes up only 2% of human body weight, but it uses up to 20% of the body’s energy production.  Most body cells use fat to burn fuel to create energy; the brain, however, can only use glucose or sugar to produce the massive amounts of energy it needs.  At least 50% of circulating blood sugar is used by the brain as fuel for higher functions, like the energy to stay focused and sustain concentration.  And unlike other body cells, the brain does not require the hormone insulin to absorb glucose from the blood.

Eating a high-sugar, high-carbohydrate meal triggers the release of large amounts of insulin, causing the body’s other cells to pull glucose from the bloodstream.  This lowers the body’s blood-sugar levels and deprives the brain of its much-needed fuel.  This leads to a craving for sugary foods, which quickly raises blood sugar. This cycle of high blood sugar followed by a crash in blood sugar is extremely detrimental to the brain, which needs a constant supply of glucose. On the other hand, a high-protein meal combined with low carbohydrates produces the opposite of insulin – the hormone glucagon. A healthy liver can store enough glucose to maintain steady blood sugar levels for eight to twelve hours, even without eating.  When glucagon enters the bloodstream, it releases glucose from the liver and raises blood-sugar levels, which is exactly what the body and mind of an active child needs.  

It is important for a high-protein diet to be complemented with low carbohydrates.  This distinction is important, because if large amounts of sugar or processed carbohydrates are consumed with large amounts of protein, the insulin released may double compared to the amount released if the carbohydrates are eaten without a protein. Although the protein can still stimulate glucagon release, the glucagon will be completely overwhelmed by the insulin surge.  Only when blood insulin levels are low will body cells leave glucose for the brain to use and burn fat for the energy they need.  

There is another advantage to a protein-rich diet. Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids, the substances used by the body to produce neurotransmitters in the brain.

That being said, eating more proteins and avoiding sugar has proven to help children overcome their ADHD.  Besides causing an insulin rush, processed carbohydrates usually contain food additives, artificial flavoring, and casein – all of which are known to aggravate inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Here are several tips on how to go about following a low-sugar, high-protein ADHD diet.

Say goodbye to the classic American breakfast of milk and cereal. Cereals are made up of mostly sugar and carbohydrates, a bad combination for a child with ADHD.  Cereals and milk contain casein and gluten – two proteins that can be toxic to the brain when digested improperly.  Instead, serve eggs, meat, and toast.

Encourage your child to drink lots of water. Coke, iced tea, Gatorade, Kool-Aid, and powdered juice drinks do not count as water. In fact, these drinks are mostly made of sugar.  Remove sugary drinks from your child’s diet and encourage him or her to drink 7 to 10 glasses of water a day.

Introduce healthy carbohydrates. If your child needs extra carbohydrates for sports, do not resort to processed foods. Instead, add slow glycemic carbohydrates like rice, apples, yams, bananas, and beans.  These foods have a lot of potassium, which will counteract the acidity high-protein foods sometimes cause.

Consider protein supplements. You might want to buy protein drinks from your local health food store to supplement your child’s diet.  Make sure you read the label carefully and choose only the powders that contain very low carbohydrates and sugar.