Malnourished by a Western Diet, or NDD

By Dr. William Sears, pediatrician, author and member of API’s Advisory Board. Originally published in the “Feeding Our Children” 2009 issue of Attached Family.

billsearsOftentimes, parents bring their child to me for consultation on learning or behavioral problems at school. They typically open their concern with, “We and our child’s teacher believe he has Attention Deficit Disorder.” After taking a nutritional history, I often reply, “Your child doesn’t have ADD; he has NDD.”

Obviously, they look surprised. They don’t know what NDD is, but it doesn’t sound like something they want their child to have. I go on to explain that what I mean by NDD is a Nutrition Deficit Disorder.

In my experience, many children described as having ADD lose this tag once their NDD is treated. Here’s how: Since the brain is 60% fat, it stands to reason that growing brains need high-quality fats. Smart fats make the brain grow and perform better. Smart fats are the omega-3 fatty acids found in high amounts in seafood. Omega-3 fats are also found in some plants (for example, flaxseed oil, canola oil, nuts and seeds), but the omega-3 fats found in plants have to be converted from shorter-chain fatty acids to longer ones before they can be used in the brain. Seafood and supplements are the most direct source of long-chain omega-3s, including the most important omega-3, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Smart vs. Dumb Fats

Research shows that omega-3 fats make brains healthier, especially the brains of young kids and older adults. Researchers believe that the high levels of omega-3 fats in breastmilk help to explain the differences in IQ between children who received human milk in infancy and those who did not.

The body uses omega-3 fats to make cell membranes. Omega-3 fats are also needed to make myelin, the insulation around nerves, and to help neurotransmitters function at the optimal levels. Omega-3 fats are known as essential fatty acids from food. Other types of fats can be manufactured in the body, but the body cannot make essential fatty acids. That is why it is important for growing brains to get adequate amounts of these “smart” fats from food.

If there are not enough smart fats available to make brain cells and other key substances, the body uses lesser-quality fats and produces lesser-quality cells. The “dumb” fats—known as replacement fatty acids—such as the kind that come from the trans fats in hydrogenated oils, clog the receptors in the cell membrane and the brain cell does not function well.

Neurotransmitters, the biochemical messengers that carry information from one brain cell to another, fit into receptors on cell membranes like a key fits into a lock. The keys and locks must match. If the cell membrane is composed of the right fats, the locks and keys match. But if the receptors are clogged with the wrong fats, the neurotransmitter keys won’t fit and brain cell function suffers. Omega-3 fats keep the receptors open so the neurotransmitters fit and the brain can function optimally.

Eat Smart Fats: Learn and Behave Better

In the past few years, several studies showed that growing children diagnosed with ADD who were given omega-3 supplements, especially DHA, improved their attention and learning.

In order for kids to learn, they have to be able to concentrate. Studies show that omega-3 fats help the brain pay attention and make connections. Researchers at Purdue University found that boys with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) had lower levels of omega-3 fats, especially DHA, the main omega-3 fat found in fish. The boys with the most abnormal behavior had the lowest levels of DHA. School-age children with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood had the fewest learning problems. In addition, students who were given DHA supplements prior to exams showed less hostility and aggression during this time of stress.

Feed Your Family with Smart Carbs

Around 50% of the energy from the carbohydrates children eat goes to fueling their growing brains. Muscles can store glucose, the body’s main fuel extracted from digested carbs, but the brain can’t store much glucose. It depends on a steady supply of glucose in the bloodstream. If the blood sugar dips too low, brain function can deteriorate within minutes.

The brain is very selective about the carbs it craves, and it prefers that you eat the right carbs with the right partners at the right time. If brain cells could comment on the best ways to give them carbs they need, here’s what they would request:

·         Partner carbs with fiber and protein – The brain prefers carbs that are naturally packaged with protein and fiber. These two partners slow the digestive process and steady the rate at which glucose enters the blood. Without protein or fiber in a food, the carbs are digested quickly and rush into the bloodstream so fast that they cause a sugar high followed by a sugar low, as the body releases a large amount of insulin to handle the sugar. Unstable blood sugar levels lead to unstable brain chemistry, which makes it hard for kids to pay attention and control their behavior.

·         Graze on good carbs – Kids and adults don’t think well when they’re hungry. Frequent mini-meals throughout the day are good for the brain.

·         Eat protein for brain power – High-protein foods perk up the brain by increasing levels of two “alertness” neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine. A high-protein meal really is a “power breakfast” or a “power lunch.”

·         Add more protein to each meal and snack.

·         Avoid fiber-less carbs (for example, candy and soda) – Instead, choose the fiber-filled carbs in fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains.

·         Feed your child a brainy breakfast – Since proteins perk up the brain, send your kids off to school with a high-protein, healthy-carb and healthy-fat breakfast, such as whole-grain cereal and yogurt.

Brain Food by Dr. William Sears

·         Smart foods: blueberries, nuts, salmon, spinach

·         Dumb foods: excitotoxins (for example, monosodium glutamate (MSG), aspartame, food colorings, preservatives), fiber-poor carbs, hydrogenated oils, sweetened beverages

 

You might also enjoy the other articles in our National Nutrition Month series:

Kids in the Kitchen: An Interview with Sally Sampson, Founder of ChopChopKids

Feeding the Whole Family: An Interview with Cynthia Lair of Cookus Interruptus

Strengthening Secure Attachment Through Food by Kelly Bartlett

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