Matt was diagnosed with ADHD combined type when he was 6 years old. Given his age, the family was reluctant to try medications, but after a couple years of parenting classes and reward charts, the parents requested a stimulant. He had significant improvement in focus and impulsivity but also reduced appetite. Now at age 13, irritability and depressive symptoms have been increasing for 9 months. Skeptical of adding another medication, his parents ask whether nutrition might be an alternative tool to treat his symptoms?
What a healthy diet even consists of seems to be a moving target over decades and years. Trendy research, supplements, and dietary approaches proliferate alongside appealing theories of action. In the end, weighing which intervention is effective for which disorder and at what cost becomes murky.
Yet several fundamental principles seem clear and consistent over time and across studies.
There is reliable evidence that in the perinatal environment, nutrition sets the stage for many aspects of healthy development. These effects are likely mediated variously through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the trillions of gut bacteria that make up the microbiome, gene-environment interactions, and more. Maternal malnutrition and stress prenatally puts infants at risk for not only poor birth outcomes but also psychiatric challenges throughout childhood, such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, and autism.1
Intervening in the perinatal period has long-term benefits. A first step includes assessing food security, beginning with consistent access to nutritious food. It is important to inquire about the role of food and nutrition in the family’s history and culture, as well as identifying resources to support access to affordable nutrition. This can be paired with parenting interventions, such as family meals without screens. This may require scaffolding positive conversations in high-conflict family settings (see
Healthy diets promote mental health
If food security is achieved, what is next? Clinicians can inquire about the who, what, where, when, and why of nutrition to learn about a family’s eating habits.2 While randomized controlled data is very limited, both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies show that healthy diets in youth correlate with mental health – more healthy foods reducing internalizing and externalizing disorders, and more typical Western diets increasing the risk. On average, dietary interventions include higher levels of fruits and vegetables, fish, and nuts, and lower levels of processed foods.2 There is not evidence that restrictive diets or fasting is appropriate or safe for youth. Additionally, involving children in getting, growing, or preparing food with gradually increasing autonomy fosters self-confidence and skill development.
In those struggling with restrictive eating disorders, food is medicine – helping those with restrictive diets to develop more balanced and adequate intake for metabolic needs. Outside of diagnosable eating disorders, weight or body mass index is less of a goal or marker when it comes to mental health. Instead, look for participation in enjoyable activities, opportunities to move and rest, and a body image that supports self-care and self-confidence (see the National Institutes of Health’s). Creating dissonance with cultural ideals of appearance centered on thinness can prevent future eating disorders.3