Diet matters: How to use food to calm your hyperactive child

We all know that food affects our bodies in numerous ways - by adding to our weight if it's high in fat content, by making us healthier through the various nutrients we get from it, and so on.

Even our mood can be affected by food. To prove a point: think about these food items now: chicken soup, chocolate, mac and cheese… How does each food choice make you feel?

Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, is quoted to have said: "Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food." An article published in the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science even cites different kinds of food and nutrients from food and their effect on our moods. This relationship between food and moods applies not just to adults but to children as well.

Our children's moods (as well as ours) are controlled largely by how well our bodies are functioning - particularly when it comes to our blood sugar levels.

When a child's blood sugar level is too low, they become sluggish, incoherent and dazed. Often times, this is mistaken for laziness and even learning disabilities.

When a child's blood sugar is too high, they become irritable, fidgety, anxious, easily distracted and yes, in many cases, begin 'bouncing off the walls.'

Having said that, we should know then that a child on a 'sugar high' does not act out on purpose. Most of the time, it is really is beyond his control.

Here is why: When blood sugar levels climb, our body's stress-handling hormones, i.e. cortisol and adrenalin, kick in.

These hormones, which supply energy to fight off stress, push kids (who already have an abundance of energy due to the fact that they are children) into 'action/energy overload' mode.

So if you were to look at a child's hyperactivity from a physical and metabolic viewpoint, you'd realise that kids really can't help acting the way they do sometimes - especially if they're not eating right.

The good news is that because food affects mood, you can use food to help calm your hyperactive child - by making better food choices.

Hyperactivity can be improved through a good diet

So what's one of the most practical things you can do to calm your hyperactive child? Take note of his diet, and change it if necessary. (This applies not just to your kid of course, but to everyone else in the family, including you.)

So if you want to help calm your hyperactive child - plus help make everyone in the family feel their best - follow these simple dietary guidelines. You may not see instant results but things can and will improve over time.

1. Eliminate processed foods

The chemicals and dyes used in processed foods wreak havoc on the body. The effects just aren't as visible in adults and children who have less trouble with stabilizing their blood sugar.

Now, this isn't to say your child should be denied an icing-laden cupcake at the occasional birthday party or a bag of cheese curls every once in a while, but these foods should be the exception to the rule - not the norm.

2. Eliminate as much white flour from your hyperactive child's diet as possible 

Switch to whole-wheat or whole-grain bread, and opt for oatmeal or sugar-free cereals instead of sugar-laden cereals. Go for wild or brown rice instead of white rice.

Pasta made from whole wheat is another good food choice which will help calm your hyperactive child. If he doesn't like it, at least limit his intake of the usual 'white' pasta.

3. Calm your hyperactive child with fresh fruits and vegetables

Of course, ALL children (and adults) should have enough servings of fresh fruits and vegetables every day.

Here are some suggestions for meals or snacks:

  • Salads made from lettuce, arugula and/or baby spinach, carrot and celery sticks, cucumbers, apples, citrus fruits, tomatoes, berries
  • Steamed vegetables (plain or with cheese)
  • Fruit topped with nuts, honey and/or yoghurt

4. Frozen is your second best bet

If for some reason the growing season or the weather doesn't give you the opportunity to have fresh produce, frozen fruits and vegetables are your next best choice.

Most of the nutrients remain intact in frozen produce. Canned fruits and vegetables will suffice AS LONG AS you purchase those canned in water only (no added salt or sugar).

5. Protein is essential for a healthy diet 

Unfortunately, children often get their protein via chicken nuggets, bologna and pepperoni (if you can really call these meat). If you really want to help calm your hyperactive child, encourage him to eat healthier and still tasty sources of protein, like eggs, baked or broiled chicken, turkey and beef you have prepared at home. (This applies to your other children too, if you have them.) Even protein ice cream (yummy!) can present benefits to your child!

While this may take more time and effort on your part, remember that this is your child's health (and yours) we're talking about. Besides, cooking at home saves a LOT of money and if you put just a little effort into planning ahead, things should work out just fine.

6. Look for alternative sources of protein, like nuts 

Nuts are full of good fats, protein and fibre; dietary essentials for all of us. Of course, if your child is allergic to certain variants, e.g. peanuts, he would have to avoid eating them. Look for alternatives that he is not allergic to.

7. Snacks don't have to be boring

Here's a list of snacks that are a healthier alternative to the usual chips and sugar-laden snacks:

  • Popcorn
  • Nuts
  • Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds
  • Low-sodium chips and salsa (once in a while)
  • Cheese cubes
  • Fruit
  • Veggies
  • Smoothies made with yoghurt and fruit
  • Frozen melon cubes
  • Cookies you make from scratch using whole wheat flour and honey or brown sugar

8. When it comes to drinks, water is always good

But let's face it: water is boring sometimes, so it's ok to let your child drink sugar-free soda (or even the 'real thing' ) on occasion. Again, it needs to be the exception - not the rule.

Also, don't fall into the trap of thinking you're doing your child a favour by giving them fruit juices. These are packed with sugar, additives and dyes, which are no help when your intention is to calm your hyperactive child.

Instead, invest in your child's health by getting 100 per cent REAL fruit juice. Or better yet, make your own fruit juice at home using fresh fruits like oranges.

It goes without saying that your child (and you!) need to avoid too much candy, ice cream, processed snack cakes and processed meats. You can have these occasionally but don't make it a habit.

Although it may be challenging, making these changes will not just calm your hyperactive child, but allow him to feel better physically and emotionally, and to be healthier all around.

Remember, though, that the objective is to help your child - not make him feel deprived or different - so let your child indulge in 'less healthy' food once in a while. The key is to make healthy eating habits a part of who they are.

This article was first published in The Asian Parent