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Brain Food: How to Optimize Nutrition for Neurodiverse Children

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Supporting the behavioral, emotional, and physical demands of children on the neurodiverse spectrum requires a multifaceted approach which can sometimes feel overwhelming for parents or caregivers. One easy and impactful place to start is with their daily nutrition. Helping children make healthy choices throughout the day goes a long way toward making them feel better physically and mentally.

Encourage Balanced Meals and Snacks

Neurodiverse children are often picky eaters, or they may intentionally restrict certain foods. It is all too easy for them to eat the same foods over and over without considering variety or balance. But balancing macronutrients can promote a broader range of nutrients and help children maintain balanced glucose and energy levels.

As much as possible, encourage meals and snacks with a mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. This combination tends to sustain energy, focus, alertness, and attention.

  • Protein helps them stay alert and focused by raising dopamine (a feel-good chemical) in the brain.
  • Whole grains and complex carbs may be “calming” and “soothing.” They help raise serotonin (another feel-good chemical) in the brain.
  • Healthy fats provide essential fatty acids essential for brain development and function.

Use Food to Stabilize Mood

The meals and snacks children eat (or skip) throughout the day surprisingly affect their mood. Most parents are familiar with the sugar high after children attend a birthday party. Or the “hangry” horrors that strike when children miss a snack. These are largely related to blood sugar levels.

Eating too many sugary foods or refined (white) starches causes a sharp spike followed by a drop in blood glucose. Skipping meals or having a gap of more than four hours between meals or snacks may lead to low blood sugar levels. Both of these contribute to feelings of anxiety, nervousness, or inattentiveness.

However, eating a mixture of protein, carbs, and fat about every three hours helps stabilize blood sugar. That reduces hunger, irritability, and potentially undesirable behavior while improving concentration and focus. Encourage parents and caregivers to serve balanced meals and provide healthy snacks to bridge the gap between meals.

Plan Meals and Snacks Using the “Stoplight” System

To help with meal planning for children, nutrition experts often use the “stoplight” system. This method groups foods into three general categories:

Green light foods are the most healthful, nutrient-dense foods. These are nutrient-packed, whole foods children are encouraged to eat frequently. They include primarily whole or minimally processed foods from each food group. Examples of green light proteins, carbohydrates, and fats to include in children’s meals and snacks include:

  • Proteins: Lean meat, poultry, low-mercury fish or seafood (salmon, sardines, light tuna, cod, tilapia, shrimp, scallops), eggs, organic tofu, legumes, nuts or nut butter, seeds
  • Carbohydrates: Whole grains like oats, brown rice, quinoa, fresh fruit, beans & legumes, vegetables, dairy, and plant-based dairy alternatives
  • Fats: Plant oils (e.g., coconut, olive, avocado), seeds and seed butters, nuts or nut butters, avocado, dark chocolate, ghee, and butter

Yellow light foods are less nutritious than green light foods. They might be higher in calories and have more sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, or other additives. Children can eat these foods occasionally, but they shouldn’t form a significant part of their diet. Yellow light foods include dried or canned fruits with added sugar, veggie chips, granola bars, yogurts with added sugar or sprinkles, or burgers, or chicken nuggets.

Red light foods are “once in a while” foods children should stop and think twice about before eating. They include candy, chips, sodas, sugary cereals, processed meats (hot dogs, sausages, bacon), and foods with artificial sweeteners, colors, refined fats, and artificial additives. The goal should be to shift more of these to yellow and green light options.

Good nutrition is essential for all growing minds and bodies. It can significantly affect how neurodiverse children feel, behave, and interact with family, teachers, and peers. Healthcare providers should talk to patients about their food choices and, if necessary, refer them to a dietitian or clinical nutritionist for further assessments and education.


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