October 23, 2013

Natural Foodie: Doctor gives food an important role in managing ADHD

Some experts believe reducing carbohydrates, sugar and saturated fat should be part of parents’ approach.

By Avery Yale Kamila

At his general pediatric practice in Windham, Dr. Stephen Donnelly, D.O., sees plenty of parents who say, “Just give me the script.” But at the Maine Center for Integrative Medicine, which he founded in Portland two years ago to offer specialty consults for children and adolescents, the parents of his patients want solutions that complement or eliminate the need for prescription drugs.

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Dr. Stephen Donnelly, who studied integrative medicine with Dr. Andrew Weil in Arizona, says he approaches “ADHD from a variety of areas – diet, exercise, school supports, neuro-psych testing.”

Courtesy photo

Cereals high in carbohydrates and sugar lead to blood sugar highs and lows and the release of adrenaline, says Dr. Stephen Donnelly, which can contribute to behaviors that look like ADHD symptoms.


Additional Photos Below

integrative approach to ADHD

WHAT: Dr. Stephen Donnelly, founder of the Maine Center for Integrative Medicine, talks about the relationship between lifestyle factors, such as nutrition, and ADHD.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Oct. 23

WHERE: Whole Foods Market, 2 Somerset St., Portland


REGISTER: 774-7711

One common issue that parents seek Donnelly’s help with is when kids exhibit signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

According to 2011 numbers from the Centers for Disease Control, 5.2 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD. These jittery, unfocused kids can be bouncing off the walls one minute and in meltdown mode the next. They can aggravate teachers and test the limits of their parents’ patience.

Stimulants – such as Adderall and Ritalin – are the conventional medicine answer. But Donnelly says there are many other avenues to explore.

Donnelly studied medicine at the University of New England and did his pediatric residency at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center. However, his training goes beyond that of many doctors because of his fellowship at the prestigious integrative medicine program run by Andrew Weil, M.D., at the University of Arizona.

Next week, Donnelly will give a talk on integrative medicine approaches to ADHD at Whole Foods Market in Portland. I caught up with Donnelly ahead of his talk to find out about one area of his treatment plan – how the foods children eat can help lead to a diagnosis of ADHD.

“I approach ADHD from a variety of areas – diet, exercise, school supports, neuro-psych testing,” said Donnelly.

He starts off by having his patients (or their parents) fill out a questionnaire that asks for detailed information about the foods eaten each day. Frequently this information gives Donnelly a picture of a child who is going through his or her day with little real nutrition.

“Oftentimes I find (the foods kids eat are) very heavy in carbohydrates and sugar and lacking in protein, fiber and healthy fat,” said Donnelly. “Some might have Cocoa Puffs for breakfast with skim milk, no snack and ramen noodles for lunch.”

He said these kinds of overly processed, nutrition-devoid foods set off chain reactions in the body that create a rollercoaster of blood sugar highs and lows. In addition, the low blood sugar triggers the release of adrenaline. The result is a kid suffering from both low blood sugar and high levels of adrenaline.

“That looks very much like ADHD,” Donnelly said.

His main message to parents struggling with an ADHD diagnosis is that children need to eat protein, fiber and healthy fats during all meals and snack times.

For the child eating Cocoa Puffs for breakfast, Donnelly said a whole grain cereal and a sliced apple with peanut butter would be a much better breakfast that would help stabilize blood sugar throughout the day. Another good choice would be an egg on whole grain toast with a side of fruit. A kid-friendly snack could be cut fruit with Greek yogurt and granola.

Donnelly said parents should make sure their kids steer clear of foods labeled “low fat.”

“Anything low-fat means high-carb,” said Donnelly, who noted that all those carbohydrates (often in the form of sugar or refined grains) cause blood sugar to spike.

When it comes to fat, Donnelly said, kids should stay away from trans fat (typically in the form of hydrogenated oil) and limit the amount of saturated fat (high in animal-based foods and low in plant-based foods).

He said the best choices for high quality fat and protein are foods such as wild-caught salmon, sardines, walnuts and flaxseeds.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

Dr. Donnelly recommends snacks like apples with peanut butter for protein, fiber and healthy fat.



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