Close the gap: using food to help learning problems

When I meet a child with learning or behavioural difficulties, their parents very often tell me that the child has no nutritional problems and no symptoms of an unhealthy gut.  This is ironic, because I’ve very seldom met a child with sensory processing irregularities, ADHD and other learning difficulties who has an adequate diet, no bowel or malabsorption problems, or all of these. It does happen but so rarely that these days, nutrition is being considered an essential part of the treatment plan.


Slowly but surely, people are accepting that nutrition drives not only physical development but learning ability as well.  Children need an adequate diet and healthy intestines to absorb those diets in order to grow and have efficiently functioning brains.  It does happen that a child shows no clear symptoms of nutritional imbalances but these can be disguised in subtle ways.  When a learning or puzzling behaviour is the symptom of a child’s difficulties, It is always worth looking deeper into his or her nutritional status.


Using food as a therapy is not an easy matter and a haphazard, trial and error approach will seldom bring significant results.  If your current family doctor, paediatrician, nutritionist or dietician is not fully on board to help you with current, evidence based approaches to restore health to your child’s body and brain, then you may want to look further.  Try finding a Functional or Integrative Medical practitioner to give you an opinion.  They are trained in medicine but specialise in looking at the individual in an holistic way – seeking to treat for health rather than tackling the symptoms of a disease or other problem.  You’ll find them with a Google search.


Individualised nutrition is best


Special diets and supplements for children with ADHD, autism and other disorders have been popular for several years but there is no consensus about whether they really work.  This is because nutrition care must be individualised to work best.  It is important to go through a process that identifies what would work best for a particular child.  There is no one special diet (or even one medication) that works for all children.


To help you to begin, here are some steps to follow in the order given[1]


  1. Check your child’s basic nutrition status first. Make sure that your child is growing as expected and that his or her current food intake is adequate.   Some developmental, learning or behaviour challenges can be due to insufficient total food intake so it is really important to complete this step first.  You may need help if you are unsure as to what comprises an adequate diet and growth rate for a child but you will find guidelines on the internet or from your health practitioner.  So often picky eating accompanies learning problems – but while maintaining body weight may be possible on a diet of milk and wheat products, for example, other nutritional essentials may be missing. 
  2. Correct bowel flora. Bowel flora are the bacteria and other microbes that humans need in the digestive system to help digest and absorb food and to fend off invasive viruses, parasites or detrimental bacteria.  Good bowel flora is also essential for optimal immune system functioning.  Antibiotics, toxic metal exposures (lead, mercury, etc) and certain viral or bacterial exposures can disrupt the health of the gut. Restoring a healthy gut may need cutting out certain inflammatory and other foods and giving a good probiotic. 
  3. Replace foods that your child doesn’t tolerate with foods of equal or better nutritional value. The usual suspects are gluten, casein (the protein found in dairy products) and soy.  You may consider having tests to identify exactly which foods are most inflammatory for your child’s immune system or digestive tract.  A common mistake is to replace cow’s milk with other milks made from rice, almonds or even potatoes.  While these are suitable for baking or cooking, they are nutritionally low in value.  Children rely on fluid milk for protein and fats so are not adequate substitutes.  Try instead to replace the protein and fats with other foods that contain adequate amounts.  Very often, the food your child craves is the one that may be causing problems in the gut – be prepared for some resistance.
  4. Replace micronutrients – that is, vitamins and minerals. Don’t supplement blindly – you need to know which are needed.  Ways of finding out are using clinical signs and symptoms that the child shows or having tests done.
  5. If your child shows distinct signs of digestive tract problems that have not resolved after you’re used the first four steps for at least four to six weeks, you’ll need to revisit the first three steps with the help of a professional. Your child may need to be checked for gut inflammation or disruptive gut microbes, which may need aggressive dietary restrictions and additions.
  6. If your child is on the autistic spectrum, your medical practitioner would probably have advised you to consider heavy metal screening and treatment. If not, you need to ask for this to be done.


If you implement the first four steps yourself, prepare to wait six to eight months to see dramatic changes.  If you don’t see any, something will be missing.  In this case, you’ll need to dig deeper with specialized professionals helping you. 


For children, growth comes first.  For this, they need macronutrients which include proteins, fats/oils, and carbohydrates.  While adults can get away with big deficits in any of these for a while, children simply can’t.  


Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals, supplemented by available products, ideally after proper diagnosis has been made of which the body needs.  It seems easier to simply give the child supplements.  Indeed, if the child responds to a supplement, should you give up other efforts to balance his or her nutrition?  The answer is NO.  If the basics aren’t met with an adequate diet, children simply do not function well, no matter how many supplements they eat.  You have to fix the food part, full stop.  Supplements (except for omega-3 oils and probiotics) can’t stop inflammation or toxins from the wrong foods, and can’t fix growth deficits caused by imbalanced total food intakes.


The link between food and learning difficulties is well established. The question of addressing food intolerances, nutritional imbalances, unhealthy gut and picky eating isn’t an easy one.  Parents and professionals struggle with stubborn children who simply refuse to eat healthily.  The key is to persevere.  Most children will take medication on the firm insistence of a parent.  Well, food is the best medicine, so insisting that it is taken, if only in very small quantities to begin with, needs the same firm approach.


ILT practitioners focus closely on the role of good nutrition.  Similarly, our training courses for helping professionals, parents and teachers consider nutrition to be essential in understanding the underlying causes of learning and behaviour challenges.  See our website to find a practitioner or for more information about our courses.


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[1] Judy Converse, MPH, RD, LD.  2009. Special-Needs kids eat right.

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