Picky eating and ADHD often go hand-in-hand.
In fact, researchers at Duke University found a high correlation between selective eating problems and ADHD. Additionally, many children with ADHD are more predisposed to crave sugar due to the surge of dopamine that sugar delivers to the brain. Add emotional dysregulation, inflexibility, and sensory processing issues to the mix, and it can be extremely difficult to introduce healthier foods into a child’s diet.
But there is hope!
I recently connected with Dana Kay during the ADHD Now What Summit, where we each presented.
Dana is a Board-Certified Holistic Health and Nutrition Practitioner and the founder of the ADHD Thrive Institute. She’s also the mother of a child with ADHD and knows firsthand the struggles that come with parenting a neurodiverse child, but she also knows the freedom that is possible once parents learn to reduce ADHD symptoms.
I asked Dana to answer a few questions today about ADHD and picky eating.
First of all, why is picky eating a problem, in particular for children with ADHD?
Picky eating is a problem for children with ADHD because picky eaters aren’t typically getting the variety of foods their growing bodies and brains need.
The underlying stressor that leads to picky eating can be a variety of things, like inflammation, zinc deficiency, gut breakdown, etc. What happens is that even though picky eating may have begun because of one of these stressors, it can quickly become a vicious cycle.
For example, zinc deficiency might have started picky eating…but then the child develops a habit of eating only certain foods…which makes the zinc deficiency worse…which makes the picky eating worse…and the cycle continues.
Many people don’t realize that ADHD is not just in the brain. It’s also deeply connected to the gut and the rest of the body!
That’s because of the gut-brain connection.
What is the gut-brain connection? Can you explain that to us?
In essence, it means that our brains are deeply connected to our guts. If our guts aren’t functioning well, our brains won’t function well either. ADHD symptoms can become worse when the gut isn’t functioning properly.
When parents improve gut health, they often see a significant reduction in ADHD symptoms.
When parents remove inflammatory foods like gluten, dairy, and soy from their child’s diet, replacing these foods with micro-nutrient rich foods and healthy fats, they are often shocked by the dramatic improvements they see.
How can parents get a picky eater to eat these nutrient-dense foods?
Overcoming picky eating isn’t easy, but it’s definitely possible!
Here are some tips we regularly use with families of picky eaters.
Tip #1: Only introduce one new food at a time. Trying more than that can make the experience overwhelming and stressful. Always pair new foods with one familiar food that the child enjoys. Doing this will ensure the weight does not drop too much.
Tip #2: Do a family food challenge. Write down a new food to try. Place this note in the kitchen, and put a checkmark each time it is tried. Once the family reaches a certain number of checkmarks, do something fun as a reward.
Remember, it can sometimes take 15-20 tries before a child’s taste buds adapt to new flavors. This requires a lot of patience on the part of the parent!
Tip #3: Try new foods during the time of day that a child will be hungry. This way, they will be more open and willing to taste new foods.
Tip #4: Try to be calm and upbeat during mealtime. Consider bringing a game or joke book to the dinner table to lighten the mood.
Tip #5: Use food chaining.
Food chaining is a technique I commonly use for families in my program. Food chaining begins with a food a child already likes. Parents take this food and change the way it is served. Change the shape, change the seasoning, and change the cooking method.
For example, a potato can be prepared a million different ways. Don’t change the food. Change the way it is served! Change the texture and the seasonings. Include herbs and spices. Keep introducing it in various ways! Change the shape, seasoning, and preparation. Deep fry, pan fry, make into mash, tots, add spices, or combine with sweet potato mash.
It’s all about changing things slowly and carefully, starting from a base that the child already enjoys.
Tip #6: Consider zinc. Many parents don’t realize that zinc deficiency can be a big driver for picky eating, so get that checked out if this is a possible concern.
Tip #7: Reduce inflammation in the body. When inflammation in the body is reduced, the pallet begins to open up.
To do this, start by removing the top inflammatory foods like gluten, dairy, and soy. Then, replace these foods with whole fruits and vegetables, grass-fed protein sources, and healthy fats.
Clean up the diet, and inflammation reduces as well, allowing the pallet to open up. I have been amazed time and time again as children start asking for their veggies. Not just tolerating them or choking them down, but actually asking for them!
Has there ever been a picky eater that you were unable to help using these strategies?
There was one family in particular that I worried I wouldn’t be able to help. When they first came to me, I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d be able to help them. At that time, their son only ate five total foods. He was the pickiest eater I had ever worked with!
But using the strategies above, we were able to slowly get him eating more and more foods.
Now, he’s eating over 100 foods!
If you could share only one key takeaway with parents of picky eaters, what would you say?
I would encourage them to begin reducing inflammation in the body by removing the top 3 inflammatory foods (gluten, dairy, and soy). In my experience working with nearly 1000 families of children with ADHD, inflammation is often the biggest driver of picky eating.
If we can reduce this inflammation, picky eating often begins to improve on its own. By eating healthier, children also experience a reduction in the impact of their ADHD challenges like emotional dysregulation, inability to sit still, inability to focus, etc.
You can learn more about Dana and her work at: www.adhdthriveinstitute.com