Nutrition for Growing Brains & How to Reduce Symptoms of ADHD in Kids

Back to School Brain News

So, your head is spinning from all the back-to-school hullabaloo and stressors, and you might not think a blog post about super-nutrition for kids’ brains is ultra important right now.

But, if you are hoping to get this school year off to a great start - and especially - if you have a child who could use support for his or her attention, focus, memory, cognition or mood - this article is for you.

I am excited about what is in store for this blog post about nutrition for kids’ brains. I have spent tons of time researching this subject for my clients and for my own family.

I’ll also be covering why brain issues are on the rise for kids - specifically why nutritional deficiencies are a root cause of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and what you can do for your kids’ nutrition.

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Why Does Nutrition Matter So Much for Kids?

Deep down, many parents actually do wonder why it matters what kids eat.

We know that healthy foods are important, but won’t it sort of fix itself in the long run?

I mean, I grew up on McDonald’s and Oreos...and I turned out “OK”, (then I found nutrition, and I turned out awesome!).

Why does nutrition now matter for our kids’ health in the short and long runs?

OK, there’s good news.

You may only need to make a few small changes to improve your child’s nutritional profile in order to ensure a lifetime of healthy living.

Here’s the deal: nutrition affects all aspects of childhood growth, development, and health.

This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Avoiding health problems related to excess body fat
  • Digestive system health
  • Brain development and behavior*

*This blog post is all about nutrition for growing on.

Brain Issues are On the Rise for Kids

Poor nutrition has been studied to contribute to child mood and behavioral problems, such as depression and anxiety, and even aggressiveness and violence.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 2016, 11% of all children in the U.S. aged 4-17 had a diagnosis of ADHD - or roughly 6.1 million American children.

While there is no “cure” for ADHD, currently available conventional treatments to reduce symptoms and improve functioning include medication, psychotherapy, education or training, or a combination of treatments.

Sadly, it is rare for medical practitioners to look at a child’s diet to assess if there are nutrient needs that are not being met in order to support a healthy brain.

Most doctors and researchers do understand that developing brains need quality nutrients.

So, let’s take a look at toxins, foods, and nutrients which may affect brain development in children.

Does Sugar, Caffeine or Junk Food Cause ADHD?

This is a very common question from parents. I will break the answer down for you in three separate parts:

Excess Sugar Impacts Cognitive Skills

The truth is, numerous studies have looked at the relationship between refined sugar and ADHD.

Most studies indicate sugar does not play a role in ADHD, while parents in the trenches with children bouncing off the walls often disagree.

My research has taught me that the human brain uses more energy than any other organ in the body and glucose is its primary source of fuel.

Excess sugar impairs both cognitive skills and self-control in people of all ages.

Furthermore, sugar has drug-like effects in the reward center of the brain. Scientists have proposed that sweet foods can produce addiction-like effects in the human brain.

This effect is even more profound in children - because their brains are still developing.

Addressing the sugar in your family culture is certainly something to consider if you are struggling to improve your child’s behavior, mood or learning.

Caffeine Can Make ADHD Symptoms Worse

Parents I work with note that caffeine use in their child (especially teens) can either make ADHD symptoms worse - OR - help give their child needed focus for certain activities or tasks. (True! And, many ADHD medications are also stimulants in the same way that caffeine stimulates the brain.)

Many adults know how to use caffeine in a responsible way (and many don’t!). But caffeine actually negatively affects kids with ADHD-like symptoms.

Getting a buzz from caffeine isn’t a sustainable way to manage ADHD-like symptoms such as inattention.

Too much caffeine can make a kid feel jittery, anxious, sick to their stomaches and often leads to a “crash” in the afternoon.

The boost that makes caffeine feel helpful during the day can make it hard for you teen to sleep at night. Being tired from lack of sleep makes ADHD-like symptoms worse, not better.

Fast Food & Junk Food Overload The Digestive And Detox Systems

Excessive consumption of fast foods and other foods of poor nutritional value can cause their kids to display behavior that might be similar to ADHD.

Artificial food additives, processed foods and chemical colorings are found everywhere in our food supply - especially in fast foods and junky snack foods.

These food additives, processing agents and food stabilizers/artificial flavors and colorings are part of the overload of toxins in the total body. And these toxins have to be processed and get rid of by the digestive and detox systems.

Proper nutrition is necessary for those detoxification pathways to remain open and functioning.

Toxins that the body cannot get rid of can be stored in the brain.

Excitotoxins are another name for excitatory neurotoxins which are often added to foods to make them seem more flavorful.

Excitotoxins are basically non-essential amino acids that serve to stimulate the umami sensory, which creates a brain inflammation cycle that leads to damage.

It also leads to a host of neurological diseases including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, dementia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, lupus and many others.

Aspartame Affects The Part Of The Brain That Influence Our Learning And Memory

OK, one more thing. Many parents who are careful to avoid sugar inadvertently give their children foods sweetened with aspartame. Aspartame is in thousands of “sugar free” foods (in particular diet drinks and chewing gum).

Aspartame is the common denominator for dozens of different symptoms and diseases, such as neurological disorders, cancers, endocrine diseases and more.

Studies have shown the sweetener directly affects our N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, the part of our brain that influence our learning and memory.

Aspartame damages NMDA receptors by causing nerves to fire excessively, essentially stimulating the neural cells to death.

Aspartame is also in the class of excitotoxins mentioned above but I am giving it its own category because it is particularly harmful in high doses, causing severe damage to the nervous system and brain.

It’s Not Just The Food, Environmental Toxins Interfere With Normal Brain Development

Everyday toxins (in our food and in our world) interfere with normal brain development.

The most critical part of human development takes place in the first trimester of pregnancy, when the cell architecture and connections between neurons are established.

A national study looked at environmental toxins and discovered that 200 chemicals are known to cause clinical neurotoxic effects in adults.

Despite an absence of systematic testing, many additional chemicals have been shown to be neurotoxic in laboratory models.

The toxic effects of such chemicals in the developing human brain are not known and they are not regulated to protect children.

The bottom line: you don’t have to live next to a toxic waste site to be exposed to brain-damaging chemicals!

Examples of toxins that can be found in our day-to-day lives:

  • Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are used to prevent food and other substances from sticking to carpets, drapes, and cooking pans.
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), used as fire retardants, are found in clothing and furniture, as well as bedding.
  • Triclosan is an antibacterial agent found in soaps, toothpastes, and many other personal-care products.
  • Bisphenol A (BPA) is an epoxy resin used to line food cans and other containers. It is also used to make plastic containers, like baby bottles, and certain paper products.
  • Phthalates make rubber-based materials soft and pliable. They are found in vinyl, plastic bottles, toys, shower curtains, and raincoats. They are also used to make personal-care products, air fresheners, and shampoos.

How Does Poor Nutrition Contribute to ADHD?

For years, however, holistic practitioners and nutritionists have speculated that certain “Franken” foods may have something to do with ADHD. See above.

Much research has been done on the subject of foods for ADHD, but according to the Mayo Clinic, experts don't believe that foods necessarily cause ADHD.

What some foods seem to do, however, is worsen ADHD symptoms or cause behavior that mimics the signs of ADHD in children.

The general dietary recommendations for children with ADHD are to include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, lean meat, and fish.

These are pretty common-sense suggestions, and while important, I believe we need to look beyond food consumption.

We need to assess the body’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients from food. We need to understand malabsorption and resultant deficiencies.

Gut Health = Brain Health

Leaky gut syndrome, also known as “increased intestinal permeability,” is a condition that has been linked to a variety of health problems. This includes mental health concerns and behavioral issues among kids.

Leaky gut refers to a condition in the body where the tight connections between the cells that line the digestive tract are damaged.

When the connections are damaged, they can no longer provide the snug barrier protection they were designed for.

When increased intestinal permeability (or leaky gut) is taking place inside your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the wrong molecular substances are able to pass through the gut wall barrier.

These molecules launch an inflammatory response not just inside the GI tract, but also throughout the immune system and whole body - AND THE BRAIN.

It is this inflammatory response that damages the organs of the body and plays a role in the various serious health conditions.

I believe ADHD-like symptoms (from having a leaky gut) are a direct result of an unhealthy, modern lifestyle.

Inflammatory foods, sugar, medications, infections, and chemicals our children’s bodies are exposed to lead to intestinal permeability.

And the stress our kids increasingly face everyday further worsens leaky gut.

Food Intolerances & ADHD

Reactions produced by food intolerances are inflammatory and can be involved in a whole host of health problems.

Sometimes food intolerances will not produce the same reaction each time. Often, mood, focus and learning problems are a result of the foods kids are exposed to on a regular basis.

Neurological symptoms of food intolerances include:

  • Anxiety
  • Headaches & Migraines
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Mood Changes
  • Hyperactivity
  • Brain Fog/Memory Issues

What I commonly see in my practice is that kids rarely correlate their ADHD-like concerns with foods they eat.

Long-term leaky gut and inflammation may lead to the development of more complicated illnesses as children get older.

Eating foods which contribute to leaky gut serve to promote those ADHD-like symptoms as long as the offending foods stay in the body.

So, if your child has ADHD-like symptoms or any of the above neurological complaints from consuming particular foods, it is very important to address your child’s leaky gut with nutrition and help him or her start to feel better.

Proper Digestion Helps Nutrients Reach the Brain

Nutrients follow a tricky pathway to your child’s brain. And, as mentioned above about leaky gut and food intolerances, nutrition trying to reach the brain must overcome several challenges.

Nutrients must first gain entry to your child’s body. So, if your child doesn’t eat healthy foods, well, they will not be available to your child’s brain.

Introducing easy, healthy foods to your child’s diet will be addressed in more detail below.

Once in the stomach, healthy foods must survive an attack by hydrochloric acid (HCl) that breaks down some of the foods.

Further along the digestive tract, nutrients must be absorbed through the cells lining the intestine and transported through blood vessel walls into the bloodstream. (Leaky gut disrupts this perfect process!)

The digestive system breaks down all foods into their component parts, which include amino acids, sugars, vitamins, fatty acids and minerals. It is these substances that move into the bloodstream and circulate to the body's cells.

Once in the bloodstream, nutrients must cross small blood vessels into brain tissue. This transport from the blood to neurons is restricted by the blood brain barrier (BBB).

How the Blood Brain Barrier (BBB) Affects Nutrient Absorption

The BBB is semi-permeable; that is, it allows some materials to cross, but prevents others from crossing. In most parts of the body, the smallest blood vessels, called capillaries, are lined with endothelial cells.

Endothelial tissue has small spaces between each individual cell so substances can move readily between the inside and the outside of the vessel.

The BBB does allow in the necessary oxygen and nutrients transported by the blood cells. Researchers have found that very small and/or fat-soluble compounds can bypass the BBB.

Some brain experts think that the blood brain barrier degrades when proper nutrients are not present, allowing harmful toxins and compounds into the brain.

This causes inflammation in the brain and in kids that means symptoms like depression, difficulty concentrating, memory, learning and cognitive issues, and other brain-based symptoms and disorders such as ADHD.

The strategies for repairing a leaky blood brain barrier are similar to the strategies for repairing a leaky gut because the causes are similar.

Nutritional Deficiencies as a Root Cause of ADHD

Deficiencies of the following nutrients have been shown to correlate with ADHD-like symptoms.

Essential Fatty Acids For Children With ADHD-like Symptoms

I am a big fan of supplementing omega-3 fatty acids for children with ADHD-like symptoms.

Why supplement? Well, you would have to convince your kids to consume A LOT of cold-water fatty fish EVERY DAY to get enough omega-3s that would make a big difference in their focus and behavior.

Some research shows that ADHD and omega-3 deficiency share some common symptoms.

There are three main kinds of omega-3s - EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) - with DHA being the most important for your child’s brain.

  • DHA accounts for 97% of the omega-3 fatty acids in the brain.
    It’s a major structural component of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for memory, language, creativity, emotion and attention.
  • Besides being a major structural component, DHA also plays a role in brain cell communication.
  • It supports optimal levels of many important neurotransmitters including dopamine, serotonin, GABA and acetylcholine.
  • It also increases the number of neurotransmitter receptors, allowing the brain to better utilize these brain chemicals.

For kids, I recommend supplementing with a high-quality DHA supplement, in a dose around 100-200 mg per day.

B Complex Vitamins To Support Your Kids' Brain Health

B-complex vitamins are really important for brain health and supporting learning and cognition.

  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine) supports the BBB, enhances brain function and helps make use of protein (amino acids). Deficiency symptoms include irritability, poor concentration, and poor memory.
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin) supports brain function and detox pathways. Deficiency symptoms include insomnia, poor memory, anxiety, depression, and irritability.
  • Vitamin B5 (pantothenate) is essential for brain and nerves. Deficiency symptoms include poor concentration and anxiety.
  • Vitamin B6 is essential for the utilization of protein (amino acids), brain function, and acts as a natural antidepressant. Deficiency symptoms include depression, nervousness and irritability.
  • Vitamin B12 supports a healthy nervous system. Deficiency symptoms include nervousness, irritability and anxiety.
  • Folate can restore blood-brain barrier integrity and lower inflammation. Low folate levels have been associated with depression and dementia in older adults.

A variation in the MTHFR (Methylenetetrahydrofolate Reductase) gene may play a role in b vitamin deficiencies - in particular, B12 and folate.

MTHFR variations limit the body’s available folate levels for numerous functions in the body, including directly controlling the brain and nervous system.

MTHFR gene mutations therefore indirectly disrupt important nutritional pathways that support brain and nervous system health.

ADHD can be one of the results of nutritional disruption.

So the important thing to note about this gene variation is that it may prevent people from properly methylating.

Methylation is one of the body’s key detox processes that helps our bodies get rid of toxins.

Methylation impairment can result in a reduced ability to clear out certain toxins such as mercury and arsenic, both of which can be neurotoxins in the brain.

My recommendation for supporting kids with possible methylation defects who also have ADHD-like symptoms is to supplement with a high quality B-complex vitamin - that contains methylcobalamin.

Additional supplementation with methylfolate is also helpful.



Protein is critical to a child’s growing brain. Having enough dietary protein is vital to providing the essential amino acids which are the building blocks of the body and mind.

Many of the important neurotransmitters children need that may prevent ADHD are made from amino acids with the help of activated folate and the B complex vitamins.

Neurotransmitters have many important roles and largely control how we feel, how we think and how we behave.

Some neurotransmitters are designed to increase our response to external environmental stimulus and others are designed to decrease our response.

In the case of ADHD it may be a matter of having unbalanced neurotransmitters with some doing more than others.

Thus, the end result is altered, unwanted behavior, lack of focus, poor concentration, learning difficulties and or hyperactivity.

Animal meat is rich in vitamin B12 and iron (as well as many other vitamins and minerals) which are key to supporting the brain and nervous system.

But, not all protein is created equal and it can be difficult to get adequate protein intake from diet alone. Many of my young clients have aversions to animal protein, or intolerances to certain animal proteins like eggs or fish.

It is important to work with a holistic nutritionist to figure out the right protein plan for your child.

For some, such as children who are vegans, protein shakes and amino acid supplements are helpful.


Other nutrients to include in your child’s supplementation program:

  • Vitamins C and E: These powerful antioxidant vitamins may neutralize the impact of excitotoxins in the brain. For children 6 and older, you can give them divided doses totaling 1,000 mg of vitamin C daily.
  • Vitamin D: a powerful tool in managing inflammation. Every cell in the body has vitamin D receptors. Studies show it can help prevent leaky brain by reducing inflammation and reducing blood-brain barrier disruption. For children 6 and older, you can give them 5,000 ius per day
  • Minerals: magnesium is a vital mineral for more than 300 biochemical processes in the body, and magnesium positively affects brain neurotransmitters, enzymes, and hormones. For children 6 and older, start with 100 mg per day and work up to a higher dose dependent on bowel tolerance.

Food for Your Child’s Brain

Ok, now on to my list of favorite brain healthy foods (that are also really easy to feed your kids):


A great food source of folate, avocados help reduce inflammation as well as help improve cognitive function, especially both memory and concentration.

Serve cut up avocado with a pinch of sea salt with your child’s meal in place of or with a salad. Mash up avocados and serve with veggie sticks for a great snack. Avocados can be added to smoothies for a healthy breakfast each day!


These little jewels contain the highest antioxidants of any food on earth, and are also loaded of vitamin C, vitamin K and fiber.

Because of their high levels of gallic acid, blueberries are especially good at protecting our children’s brains from stress.

Frozen organic blueberries can be purchased year-round and are great added to oatmeal, smoothies and yogurt.

Green veggies

Some research points out that getting regular helpings of leafy green brain foods (like kale, Swiss chard and romaine lettuce) can help improve memory and cognition.

The high levels of folate in leafy greens make them an anti-inflammatory food.

Blend baby spinach with banana, frozen blueberries, almond milk and a dash of honey for an easy smoothie that does not taste like spinach!

Wild-caught Salmon

Fatty fish that swim in the deep cold waters of the sea contain a large amount of the ultra brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA.

Consuming wild salmon each week can help keep your child’s brain running smoothly and improve memory.

If you have kids, feeding them grilled, smoked, broiled or steamed salmon can help prevent ADHD by improving their focus.


Eating walnuts might help improve your child’s mental alertness.

Just munching on a few walnuts a day can improve their cognitive health thanks to their high levels of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

Add walnuts to oatmeal, healthy cookies, pancakes, and more. I love to grind walnuts and sprinkle on roasted veggies along with sea salt and olive oil.

Coconut oil

Coconut oil works as a natural anti-inflammatory, suppressing cells responsible for inflammation, so it can help with memory, blood flow, mood and sleep.

Cook your children’s veggies in coconut oil, add a teaspoon to smoothies and even use as a spread in place of butter or peanut butter on toast.

Coconut oil plus honey on a piece of toasted gluten free bread is a great after school snack for kids.

Next Step: Get Help For Your Kids

I have applied these healthy brain principles in our family to help my children with school, learning, focus, mood and getting more consistently restful sleep.

That means less worries about poor grades, bad moods, irritability, and instead feeling more empowered and happier every day!

I have also worked with dozens (and dozens!) of families to help them do the very same thing for their children.

If you have already been working on nutrition to reduce ADHD-like symptoms for your child, and the process is feeling overwhelming or complicated, you may need to get professional help.

Healing the gut and addressing deficiencies is the right place to start. I can help you uncover your child’s root cause of ADHD-like symptoms.

Let’s get your kiddo on a path towards greater health and achieving all their goals and dreams.

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Disclaimer, Limitations of Liability & Indemnity

The information on this website is for educational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. This information is provided to help you make informed decisions about your health. It is not meant to replace the advice of your primary physician.

Choosing a holistic approach to health care through nutrition means choosing personal responsibility for your health care. Sara Peternell, MNT, is not liable or responsible for any harm, damage or illness arising from the use of the information contained herein or through any of the nutritional therapy programs available for purchase.

By reading the information on this website, and by becoming a client, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Sara Peternell, MNT, and all agents, from and against any and all claims, liabilities, damages, losses or expenses, including reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs, arising out of or in any way connected with your access to or use of the website, products or services.

Copyright Sara Peternell, All Rights Reserved

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