Is There a Connection Between Nutrition and a Child's Behavior?
Believe it or not, there was a time when people weren’t convinced about the connection between our diet and our health. Health, or lack thereof, was considered to be a result of chance or poor genes.
Now, there is no doubt about the connection between nutrition and our physical health; and this connection is much more crucial during childhood. Many of the physical development issues children may face are directly connected to each child’s specific nutritional needs in his or her lifetime.
In short, it is well-established that nutrition is intrinsically connected to a child’s physical and neurological health. However, the connection between a child’s health and his or her behavior is not as well circulated.
With the rising diagnosis of child developmental conditions like ADHD, autism, and autism spectrum disorder, researchers are investing more time and resources to find out what factors, including diet, increase the risk of children having these conditions.
Luckily, researchers have made significant strides in this area, and I am committed to applying this knowledge in my nutrition practice to helping families and individuals who are struggling with these conditions.
In this article, I will review what the foundational research says about how nutrition influences child behavioral development.
First, Let’s Review How Developmental Delays Affect the Brain
Only recently have we begun to understand how different brain conditions affect, not only the brain, but the whole body. These conditions manifest themselves in significant behavioral differences when compared with children without these conditions. This information is fundamental for finding answers. Below I’ve described some of the basics.
What is Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder and How Does It Affect Health and Behavior?
The many types of autism don’t have one particular cause, rather they are the result of a range of genetic and environmental factors that a child may experience.
Scientists have identified multiple gene mutations that are associated with autism spectrum disorder. Some of these genetic changes, or epigenetic changes can take place due to biochemical imbalances, gastrointestinal dysfunction, and environmental factors like diet and toxins.
These elements that arise during crucial developmental months of life result in differences in behavior. Some of the difficulties include repetitive behaviors, difficulties with social interaction, and gastrointestinal health issues. Each individual with autism is unique, and while about 40% have an intellectual disability, many develop exceptional skills in a specific area, like visual arts, music, and academics. In about 25% of cases, individuals with ASD are nonverbal.
What is ADHD and How Does It Affect Health and Behavior?
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can cause difficulty remaining attentive, can experience hyperactivity or impulsivity, and have difficulty regulating their mood, among others.
Like other behavioral disorders, researchers have found that there are usually multiple causes of risk factors acting at once. These include genes, health behaviors of the mother during pregnancy, low birth weight, food allergies/sensitivities and brain injuries.
In all these cases, a complete and specialized nutrition intervention may help with some of the discomforts that can arise when an individual has been diagnosed with ASD or ADHD.
How Can Diet Improve Health and Behavior of Children and Adults with Developmental Delays?
There three basic principles that families and health specialists alike should be aware of when developing a nutrition al plan for people with ADHD or ASD.
People with Developmental Delays Tend to Have Unbalanced Diets
Many parents and caregivers of children and adults with behavioral disorders struggle with what they often describe as “picky”, or “fussy” eating behaviors. Caregivers recognize that there are certain foods people with ASD or ADHD won’t eat, and in some cases what they will eat is extremely limited. For example, foods with gluten (like bread and cereals) and casein (like yogurt and cheese), tend to cause inflammation and gastrointestinal discomfort in individuals with ASD. They are also foods that stimulate opioid receptors in the brain, meaning they can cause addiction. For this reason, these foods also tend to be some of the most accepted by children; this can put parents in a very difficult situation, if not advised by a nutritional specialist.
Few nutrition professionals are familiar with developmental delay-specific nutritional needs, so caregivers are left to their own devices, following fads and advice of non-professionals. The lack of sound guidance, together with “picky” behavior can lead to nutrient deficiencies and excesses that can make the problem worse.
2. Certain Foods May Worsen Behavioral Symptoms
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recognize that there are certain foods that may affect people with behavioral disorders differently than the average population.
Children with ADHD, for example, may have low levels of omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, and magnesium, and they often do not eat enough food. Eating foods that are energy and nutrient-dense is important for these children.
People with Autism and ASD have a range of characteristics that can affect their eating patterns, from motor patters than can affect chewing and swallowing to repetitive or restrictive eating. Additionally, ASD is often accompanied by food allergies, stomach pain due to anxiety, constipation and others. These can make individuals irritable, and they are often unable to express their discomfort. Research shows that foods containing gluten and dairy may make them feel worse.
3. Nutrition is part of a holistic health support plan
Just like with any individual seeking maintain long-term health, they need to have optimum physical and mental health. Physical health is the result of exercise, treating illnesses effectively, and a balanced nutrition that meet individual needs.
When a person is diagnosed with Autism, ASD or ADHD, physicians will often discuss medications that an individual can take to improve behavior, but nutrition is often left out of the equation. Nutritional interventions are a key part of any holistic health plan, regardless of health status.
Wrapping it Up
Nutrition and diet is often ignored when discussing ways to support the health and wellbeing of people with developmental delays like ADHD, Autism, and ASD. However, as we become more aware of the many pathways in which nutrients (and lack thereof) can affect the health and development of the general population, we must not ignore that this is logically also true for people with behavioral disorders.
If you are looking to put together a holistic health plan for a person with Autism or ADHD, make sure that nutrition and diet are cornerstones for your plan.
Contact me at [email protected] to set up an appointment to get started with a Personalized Nutrition Intervention plan.
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