The ADHD Diet: Which Fats to Include and Why?
A healthy ADHD diet requires the right kind of fats. But which are the right kind of fats? There is so much contradictory information out there it can make your head spin. If you want to know which fats to include in your ADHD diet and why, read on…
Why a Healthy ADHD Diet Needs Fats
Avoiding dietary fat is a trend that started about 40 years ago. Interestingly, the widespread promotion of fat avoidance is likely to be a major contributor to many ADHD symptoms. It’s important to realize that the majority of our brain is composed of fat.
The brain as well as the entire nervous system thrives on the proper, balanced assimilation of fats from our diet. Despite the unfortunate reputation they have earned over the past decades, fats are absolutely essential to our wellbeing. Here’s why we need to include fats in our ADHD diet:
- Fat is an excellent fuel source for the body. More and more studies are revealing that it’s an excess of glucose from diets high in refined carbohydrates and not fat that is the main cause of obesity, heart disease and many degenerative problems.
- Fats from animal sources contain vitamins that help the body absorb and synthesize minerals. If these ‘activators’ are not available, the assimilation of minerals becomes compromised. This can lead to mineral deficiencies, which are often linked with ADHD symptoms.
- Fats help the body assimilate amino acids from the proteins in our food. This is mandatory to keep the ADHD brain and its neurotransmitters running properly.
- Fats provide structure and integrity to our cell membranes and lubricate the tissue surrounding our nerve fibers. This aids in the communications between nerve cells – crucial for people with ADHD.
- Fats help regulate body temperature, promote healthy and radiant skin, and protect many of our vital organs
- A lack of essential fatty acids in the ADHD diet causes forgetfulness, cognitive impairment, hostility, hyperactivity, anxiety and depression
- Short-chain fatty acids (found in butterfat from cows and goats) and Medium-chain fatty acids (found in butterfat and tropical oils) have antimicrobial properties which protect us from pathogenic bacteria, viruses and yeasts in the gut.
Fatty Acids in a Nutshell
ALL fats and oils, whether of animal or vegetable origin, are a combination of saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s).
Saturated fats: These fats have a highly stable molecular structure, therefore they do not go rancid and can be used for cooking without becoming toxic. Animal fats and tropical oils (like coconut) have the highest amounts of saturated fatty acids. These fatty acids contribute to a healthy immune system and provide the body with immediate energy. The body, however, can make its own saturated fatty acids from carbohydrates, which is why they are not considered essential.
Monounsaturated fats: These fats are relatively stable and tend to be liquid at room temperature. They have a lower smoking point and are best not used for cooking. A healthy body can make its own monounsaturated fatty acids from saturated fatty acids. Therefore these fatty acids are also not considered essential. Olive, almond, pecan, cashew, peanut and avocado oil contain higher amounts of monounsaturated fatty acids.
Polyunsaturated fats: These fats include the two PUFA’s most commonly found in our diet – Omega 3 and Omega 6. Flaxseed, soybean, sunflower, safflower, grape seed and cottonseed oil all contain high amounts of PUFA’s. PUFA’s are unstable, highly reactive and should never be heated. PUFA’s ARE essential. Our body can’t make them and therefore we must get them through food. But before you engorge on these fatty acids, keep reading…
Which Fats to Include in a Healthy ADHD Diet?
Numerous clinical studies using Omega 3 and Omega 6 oils have revealed their effectiveness in treating ADHD. Both of these are essential fats, BUT (and it’s a big but!) they need to be consumed in the right balance and amount.
Before the introduction of processed foods, people consumed Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids in relatively equal and acceptable amounts (around 4% of the caloric intake) because whole unprocessed foods (animal fats, fish, green vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes and olive oil) naturally contained the right amounts of both for optimum health.
As always, nature has a way of maintaining balance. Problems like obesity, autoimmune disorders, neurodegenerative disease, liver damage and many other health conditions weren’t as prevalent in the past as they are today. The cause of these problems is believed to be ‘inflammation’ originating from an excess of PUFA’s in our diet.
The main culprits in the case are processed foods and vegetable oils (modern diets sometimes contain up to 30% of PUFA’s – source: Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon). Consuming too many PUFA’s causes massive, systemic stress to the body.
“Excess PUFA’s interfere with attention. They increase adrenaline production, activity in the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) and stress hormones. They can also cause hypothyroidism which keeps the front brain from having enough energy to focus.”
Dr. Ray Peat
Not only are many of us consuming too many PUFA’s, a large percentage of processed foods and vegetable oils also have an unbalanced Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio – they contain far too much Omega 6. As a result, many people have a deficiency in Omega 3 fatty acids while suffering from an excess of Omega 6. We need Omega 3 Fatty Acids because they:
- Keeps the blood thin and well circulated
- Balances out mood swings
- Promotes healthy heart function
- Improves memory and concentration
- Prevents depression and anxiety
- Balances out cholesterol levels
- Regulates blood pressure
As people become more aware of the dangers related to processed foods, they are returning back to grandma’s cooking style – a diet of wholesome, unprocessed foods that include moderate amounts of saturated animal fats. Creating a dietary balance between Omega 3 and 6 can pose a considerable challenge to people living in the age of industrial foods. I suggest keeping some of the following guidelines in mind. Adhere to some simple rules and you’ll be well on your way.
General Guidelines For Fats and the ADHD Diet
- Contrary to what is often prescribed, use vegetable oils sparingly, preferably eliminate them from your diet altogether. Oils like corn-, soy-, grape seed-, sunflower-, safflower-, cottonseed-, and canola oil contain high amounts of Omega 6 fatty acids. Vegetables naturally don’t contain high amounts of fat. Therefore it takes extensive processing to obtain oil from them and at the end of the process they have a very unstable molecular structure. They become rancid easily and are prone to oxidization when heated, making them toxic. Processing also destroys most of the plant’s original nutrients. These unstable molecules can cause a lot of damage to the body’s cells. Avocado oil, walnut oil and sesame seed oil contain higher amounts of mono-unsaturated fatty acids – which makes them less unstable. Use them occasionally.
- Use cold pressed extra virgin olive oil for salads – in moderation. I don’t recommend cooking with olive oil because it has a relatively low smoking point, increasing its toxicity.
- Avoid processed foods: cookies, sweets, pastries, fast food, chips etc… They usually contain high amounts of Omega 6 fatty acids coming from vegetable oils (check the label)
- Avoid trans fats found in most foods mentioned above. Trans fats are also found in margarine and butter replacements. Shortening used to be pure lard, but since the introduction of hydrogenated vegetable oils this product category is basically a trans fatty mess. Stay clear of this stuff at all costs.
- For cooking, use real butter or ghee – preferably from grass fed cows’ raw milk – extra virgin coconut oil or goose fat. Grass fed butter naturally has an excellent Omega 3 to 6 ratio. You can also opt for pork lard from pastured pigs. This is a good source of vitamin D and contains high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids.
- To balance out Omega 3 and 6 levels, take a fish oil supplement containing Omega 3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA). Don’t exceed the daily-recommended dosage. Keep in mind that PUFA’s are essential but can cause cellular damage when consumed in excess. Flaxseed oil also has a high Omega 3 content. Sprinkle it on salads on occasion. Never heat flaxseed oil!
- Include plenty of fruits and vegetables in your ADHD diet. This provides antioxidants, which helps your body protect itself from any oxidative injury or stress caused by a surplus of omega 6 fatty acids.
- Avoid stress and excessive consumption of alcohol since this compromises your brain’s ability to use its fatty acids efficiently.
- Try to incorporate some of the following foods into your ADHD diet on a regular basis.
Other Whole Food Sources for Omega 3 Fatty Acids
- Fish, especially fatty fish: salmon, mackerel, sardine, herring, anchovy, pilchard, butterfish, trout, tuna,…
- Most dark green vegetables, broccoli, spinach, lettuce, etc…
- Dark green herbs, basil, parsley, watercress, mint
- Whole Milk, cheese and butter (preferably from grass fed animals)
- Meat (from range-fed animals if possible)
- Milk and cheese from sheep, goats or grass fed cows
- Eggs (from free range chickens if possible)
- Organ meats from grass fed animals, especially liver
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