The Happy Brain Diet for ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorders
What is the Happy Brain Diet?
The Happy Brain Diet is rooted in principles from the Feingold diet, with a special emphasis on balancing blood sugar. It is a one month elimination diet followed by a systematic re-introductory phase. A temporary elimination and subsequent reintroduction can help you better understand how foods uniquely impact your child’s body.
The Feingold diet became popular in the 1970s after a psychiatrist named Ben Feingold published the book Why Your Child is Hyperactive. In the book, Feingold attributed hyperactivity to the large amounts of food colorings, flavorings, and preservatives consumed by children. He claimed that hyperactivity could be prevented by completely removing these food additives along with salicylates (naturally occurring compounds found in certain fruits and vegetables) from the diet.
The medical community did not readily accept his theory, and clinical studies supporting this type of dietary interventions were limited. However, many families have anecdotally seen marked improvements in their child’s behavior following the removal of artificial dyes, preservatives, and flavorings. What’s more, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement in 2008 saying, “the overall findings of the study are clear and require that even we skeptics, who have long doubted parental claims of the effects of various foods on the behavior of their children, admit we might have been wrong.”1
There are few clinical studies conducted on the Feingold diet, but specific aspects of the diet have been investigated. For example, a meta-analysis in 2004 found evidence to support the hypothesis that artificial food dyes may contribute to hyperactivity.2 Another study found that food additives like artificial colors and preservatives increased hyperactivity in children with and without ADHD. A more recent meta-analysis found evidence supporting the idea that synthetic food colors may contribute to the symptoms of ADHD in children, and restriction diets might be beneficial.4
Unfortunately, the evidence on this topic is limited due to the lack of consistency, small sample sizes, and the challenges associated with controlling for a number of variables. One of the main challenges is controlling for the dose and duration of exposure to such a wide variety of food additives, preservatives, and colorings that litter our food supply. That being said, the anecdotal evidence is vast and removing these compounds from a child’s diet poses no risk to their health. Eliminating food additives, preservatives, and colorings for a period of one month, with careful observation of your child’s symptoms, could help you determine if they are indeed having an impact on your child.
Blood sugar control is a critical piece of the Happy Brain Diet since it’s well documented that children with ADHD have significantly larger chances of having glucose dysregulation.5 Furthermore, chronically high and low blood sugar swings negatively affect brain development that may contribute to poor attention later in life. Glucose dysregulation has a tremendous effect on mood, focus, energy, self-monitoring abilities, decreased executive function, reduced information processing speed, and impaired memory.5 Children who have ADHD, sensory processing issues or other neurological disorders may experience any or all of these symptoms.
A note on the word “diet”
Although the word “diet” is in the name of the Happy Brain Diet, by no means am I suggesting that you put your child on a restrictive diet intended for weight loss. In our weight-centric American culture, this can be sort of confusing. Please keep in mind that the word “diet” simply refers to a temporary eating plan with a specific goal in mind, just like the Mediterranean Diet. Ultimately the goal is to include as many types of food as possible and promote a healthy relationship between your child and food.
Who should try the Happy Brain Diet?
The Happy Brain Diet is for children who have ADHD, sensory processing issues, attention or behavioral concerns, or other neurological disorders. For more information about natural approaches to ADHD check out Healing your child from ADHD (E-Book)
What foods to avoid?
The Happy Brain diet restricts artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, preservatives, and all caffeine. Unlike the Feingold diet, the Happy Brain diet allows the salicylates found in several types of fruits and vegetables. Carefully read the ingredients label on all packaged foods and be on the lookout for the following items.
- All food dyes
- Allura Red #40
- Sunset Yellow #6
- Carmoisine Red #3
- Tartrazine Yellow #5
- Ponceau Red #5
- FD&C #6
- Blue #1
- “Added colors”
- Caramel color
- Natural colors from turmeric, beta-carotene, grape skin extract, beet, and saffron are typically okay.
- Artificial flavors
- “Artificial flavors”
- “Added flavors”
- “Natural flavors”
- Sodium benzoate
- Sodas- even non-caffeinated items like Sprite, Ginger Ale, and Fanta.
- Coffee drinks
- Performance drinks
What foods to include?
Now that you know which foods to avoid, focus on adding in as many nutrient rich foods as possible to nourish your child’s brain and body. The priority is balancing their blood sugar to support balanced mood, energy, and focus. The key to balancing blood sugar is to add a healthy protein, fat, and fiber source at each meal! Here are foods that fit into each category.
- Salmon, cod, sardines
- Tofu, tempeh
- Grass fed ground beef, elk, deer
- Chicken, turkey
- Olive oil, olives
- Nut butters and nuts (walnuts, almonds, pistachios, macadamia nuts, peanut butter, etc.)
- Chia seeds, hemp seeds
- Coconut oil, coconut butter
- Nuts and seeds (walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds)
- Berries, kiwi, apples, oranges
- Beans and lentils
- Leafy greens
- Winter squash
- Vegetables and fruit
- The emphasis is on adding as many good things as possible! Consider adding a drizzle of olive oil or slices of avocado to basically everything, fold olives into scrambled eggs, bake with high fiber flours like almond and flax meal. Sprinkle nuts and seeds on top of oatmeal or vegetables, mix them into baked goods, or blend them into smoothies. Snack on a handful of berries and mixed nuts. Roast winter squash chunks and drizzle coconut butter on top for a decadent, naturally sweet treat. When planning a meal, start with your protein and build from there!
If you have the time, energy, and resources available to you, removing gluten and dairy during the elimination month is an option. For some children, gluten and dairy can be irritating to the gut and contribute to neurological symptoms due to the gut-brain connection. Although it’s possible to remove these items from your child’s diet, do consider if this is the appropriate time to add another thing to your plate.
How to Help Your Child with Constipation – Natural Alternatives to Miralax (E-book)Product on sale
Healing your child from ADHD (E-Book)Product on sale
How to do an elimination/challenge diet (E-Book)Product on sale
Reintroduction is a critical component to every elimination diet, but unfortunately it’s often overlooked. The elimination phase is an opportunity for a “clean slate”, but the introductory period is when we really gather information! After one month of elimination, systematically introduce one eliminated food at a time and carefully observe your child’s symptoms. It may be helpful to record your child’s symptoms before beginning the elimination phase so you know what to look for. Common symptoms are a change in your child’s behavior, abdominal pain, headaches, and a change in bowel movements.
I recommend listing the eliminated items in order of importance to your child. For example, reintroduce the eliminated food they missed the most, first. Then create a tracking system that makes sense to you. For some people, a spreadsheet with the symptoms on one axis and the reintroduced food on another could be helpful. Others may prefer to hand write it on a sheet of paper, or simply keep notes on their phone. The key is to have a system that makes it easy for you to connect the dots between the reintroduced food and your child’s symptoms.
The timeline for reintroduction can seem long and tedious, but remember, this is where you get individualized information about your child! One timeline for reintroducing a food is to eat a small amount of that food at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then wait 3-4 days and pay attention to your child’s symptoms. An alternative reintroduction timeline is to eat a small amount of the food on day one, a moderate amount on day two, and a large amount on day three. Again, wait 3-4 days and pay attention to their symptoms.
If their symptoms appear to get worse, return to eating foods that have been working well and only try another new food once they’ve returned to baseline. If no symptoms emerge, move onto the next food! The waiting period can be challenging, but food reactions can take up to 3 days to occur. There’s a possibility that some of these compounds just don’t work for your child and need to be continually removed from their diet. Although difficult, it’s not impossible! Artificial flavors, dyes, and sweeteners are found in heavily processed foods, and eliminating them in the long term can certainly be beneficial to your child’s overall health and wellbeing.
For more information about doing an elimination/challenge diet see our How to do an elimination/challenge diet (E-book)
- Breakfast: Full fat yogurt with a handful of berries and chopped nuts/seeds. Nut flour pancakes with jam and a side of turkey bacon. Fruit smoothie with Optimal Protein powder, frozen berries, almond milk and flax seed oil.
- Lunch: Canned tuna (in olive oil or water, no preservatives) mashed with avocado and mustard, cucumber
coins, carrot chips, and almond flour crackers for dipping. Hummus drizzled with olive oil and sliced carrots, cherry tomatoes and grain-free tortilla chips. Turkey and cheese pinwheels with apple and yogurt dipping sauce.
- Dinner: Groundbeef meatballs, spaghetti squash, sugar free tomato sauce, and sauteed veggies. Chicken or beef fajitas with grain-free tortillas. Quinoa mac & cheese with broccoli.
- Snacks: apple with nut butter, almond flour banana bread muffin, paleo granola.
Do you have questions about how to do a Happy Brain Diet for your family?
Check out Kayla Martin, CNS, Nutrition Educator at Montana Whole Health. Schedule a FREE 20 minute consult to find out how Kayla can make eating well easy for you and your family.
- Smith M. History and hyperactivity: the Feingold diet. 2008. History and Policy.
- Schab DW, Trinh NH. Do artificial food colors promote hyperactivity in children with hyperactive syndromes? A meta-analysis of double-blind placebo-controlled trials. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2004;25(6):423-434. doi:10.1097/00004703-200412000-00007
- McCann D, Barrett A, Cooper A, et al. Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial [published correction appears in Lancet. 2007; 370(9598):1542. Lancet. 2007;370(9598):1560-1567. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61306-3
- Nigg J, Lewis K, Edinger T, Falk M. Meta-Analysis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms, Restriction Diet, and Synthetic Food Color Additives. 2012. 51(1): 86-97.
- Peterson, T. (2022, January 4). Diabetes and ADHD: The Correlation is High, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, January 19 from https://www.healthyplace.com/diabetes/mental-health/diabetes-and-adhd-the-correlation-is-high