Is ADD really NDD: NUTRITION Deficit Disorder?


“You put junk food into a child’s brain, you get back junk behavior, junk learning, and junk mood.  It’s as simple as that!”

The above is a powerful quote from The N.D.D. Book written by Dr. William Sears, MD. This book explores the concept of “Nutrition Deficit Disorder,” or NDD, a term coined by Dr. Bill Sears, MD.

According to Dr. Bill Sears, “many children described as having A.D.D. lose this tag once their N.D.D is treated [1].”

As a nutritionist who works with children, I have heard of many junk food reactions like this from my clients. So, I am thrilled a medical doctor, specifically a pediatrician, is sharing this important message.

This concept of Nutrient Deficiency Disorder is one of the reasons why I wrote my latest book Use Food and Nutrition to Improved ADHD and Autism. I wanted to cover the science behind how adequate nutrients and good nutrition are important for attention and focus as well as neurological conditions like autism.

What is Nutrition Deficit Disorder?

Dr. Sears uses the concept of nutritional deficit disorder (NDD) in his practice when parents express their concern about their child’s trouble concentrating, behavioral, and learning issues.

A developing brain needs the right, real, nutrients to thrive. However, Dr. Sears explains that most children aren’t getting the nutrients they need for proper cognitive growth.

The reason: the food many kids eat, a.k.a. the current Standard American Diet, would be totally unrecognizable to our great-grandparents.

Since young brains cannot thrive on fake foods, they “react,” leading to an array of symptoms ranging from learning and behavioral issues to fatigue, and complications associated with a weak immune system.

Common symptoms of Nutrition Deficit Disorder

Dr. Sears looks at the following main signs when diagnosing a child with NDD [2]:

  • Regular mood swings
  • Persistent temper tantrums
  • Restless sleep
  • Poor attention span
  • Impulsive outbursts or behavioral issues
  • Diagnosed or labeled with a “D”: ADD, ADHD, BPD, OCD, etc.
  • Trouble learning
  • Hyperactivity
  • Frequent infections
  • Dry, flaky, bumpy skin
  • intestinal problems (reflux, abdominal discomfort, constipation, diarrhea)
  • Vision problems
  • Frequent allergies
  • Dry, brittle hair
  • Brittle, thin nails
  • Very pale skin, especially on the earlobes

How can nutrient deficiencies affect the brain?

Since the brain is about 60% fat, a growing brain depends a lot on omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that fatty acid deficiencies can reduce the brain’s ability to memorize new information. These deficiencies can also affect behavior.

Why omega-3s? Simple: because of DHA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid that supports healthy brain development, focus and learning.

Case study #1

The brain thrives on a varied diet which is why a restrictive diet can lead to behavioral symptoms. For instance, one case report presented by Dr. Melina Saavedra, MD shows that a 4-year old diagnosed with ASD showed higher irritability due to a restrictive diet that led to a vitamin C deficiency and scurvy. It turns out that the child had a selective feeding habit since the age of 18 months and was eating mostly wheat, semolina, and dairy snacks. The child did not consume any fruits and vegetables.

Case study #2

In this case report involving a 9-year old boy with severe ASD, researchers reported that the child’s severe malnutrition resulted into pulmonary hypertension. The boy initially had a limp that worsened until he was entirely unable to ambulate and developed a dry cough and labored breathing. His mother also reported a small amount of gum bleeding.

Lab works revealed an undetectable level of vitamin C as well as deficiencies in vitamins B1, B6, and D. Dietary history revealed that, for the past 3 years, the child had eaten mostly white foods including chicken nuggets, cookies, crackers, and water. He would not eat fruits, vegetables, milk, and juice.

Once nutrient levels were replenished, metabolic bone disease and pulmonary hypertension were reversed, and the child was able to ambulate without pain.

Take home message: Good nutrition is essential, even with a picky eater.

Common deficiencies in children today

Many parents believe that picky eaters will outgrow their selective food habits and will be “just fine.” But that’s not always the case and children can get very sick due to nutrient deficiencies if they don’t eat a balanced diet.

Let’s consider French Fries for example. Did you know that a 2017 national survey on children’s eating habits showed that over 27% of young children do not consume a single discrete serving of vegetables on a given day? Or that French Fries are the No. 1 vegetable consumed among toddlers who do eat vegetables?

That’s shocking, right? I mean how can a growing brain thrive on a nutrient-depleted diet?

Now, imagine the effects of a nutrient-poor diet on a child with ASD… In fact, researchers have found that children with ASD may be more likely to be deficient in:

  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamins B6, B9, B12
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Omega-3 fatty acids

Food additives and the brain: The case of little Garett

Remember Jekyll and Hyde? Well, Brandy Carlson, Garrett’s mother used this analogy to describe her son after he ate a hot dog [3]. Check out their story below.

And it took six years of doctors’ visits to finally identify the culprits: foods that contain red dye.

Garrett explains that could feel his body reacting to red food dye, which would make him lose control and throw tantrums.

According to Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy organization in Washington, “her organization has heard from 2,000 families whose children have experienced a reaction to red dye 40.”

Lefferts points out that “beverages like Mountain Dew, or Sunny D, candy like Skittles, Starburst, M&Ms, Betty Crocker cream cheese frosting or buttercream frosting, or red velvet cake mix” still use synthetic food dyes in the U.S. But not in Europe where many food companies have decided to remove these dyes from their recipes.

Why do synthetic ingredients affect cognitive growth?

One reason could be that these chemicals promote nutrient wasting.

For instance, tartrazine and sunset yellow appear to increase urinary zinc excretion in children and lead to hyperactivity and other behavioral deterioration in those children [4].

Synthetic ingredients to watch out for

You know these foods with a neon-like glow? Well, they’re not the only foods loaded with chemicals. Even brown or white foods can contain synthetic ingredients. Plus, any food that lists any of the following ingredients could be problematic for growing brains [4]:

  • Brominated vegetable oil (found in many sports drinks)
  • Potassium bromate and azodicarbonamide (added to many breads)
  • Tartrazine
  • Sunset yellow
  • Indigotine
  • Erythrosine
  • Allura Red

In his book, Dr. William Sears also recommends that children avoid artificial sweeteners.

Nutrition Deficit Disorder: Improving attention and mood through food

Here’s some good news: Dr. Sears reports that he has seen firsthand many children’s behavior and concentration problems show remarkable improvements with proper brain nutrition. And I agree. I’ve seen the same thing as well.

Some of his recommendations include: Start with a healthy breakfast, eat fish, avoid food additives, and spend time in nature.

I think Dr. Sears has smart nutrition advice. In fact, I know it is. Because this is what I’ve been studying and teaching since 2002. And what I have seen in my nutrition practice with children with autism and ADHD…  

Avoiding junk and adding good nutritious food can make a world of difference.   

Here are my  6 nutrition essentials that I start with for my clients with ADHD:

#1. Avoid Junk Food

Not only do junk foods lack nutrients but they can also cause nutrient wasting as explained above. Junk food is filled with additives such as: colors, flavors, preservatives, and MSG that can cause hyperactivity, challenges with focus, and behavioral reactions.

#2. Get the Toxins Out

Toxins are not only in our food supply but our homes as well. These toxins can damage the brain, as well as cause day to day symptoms that can impair our thinking and mood, especially in our children.

#3. Eat Healthier

Organic Whole foods are packed with various nutrients, antioxidants, and minerals that help a growing brain thrive. Worried about pesticides? Check the Environmental Working Group’s guide to pesticide in products for a list of the least and most contaminated foods.  

#4. Supplement Wisely

Vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids, as I mentioned throughout the article, are important for brain development and function. Getting enough of these nutrients is essential. And sometimes, maybe because a child is a picky eater, they are not able to get all of their needs met through food, and benefit from supplementation.

#5. Avoid Gluten, Casein, and Soy

Wheat and other gluten-containing foods can wreak havoc on a growing brain due to the opioid-like effects of wheat [5]. And these opioids are also found in dairy (the protein, casein) and soy. And avoiding them can improve digestion, health, cognitive function, and behavior.

#6. Take good care of yourself

And last but not least, don’t forget to take care of yourself. You need energy and a positive outlook to feed your child well. So make sure you take the time to do something good for yourself.

Want to know more? Get my latest book Use Food and Nutrition to Improved ADHD and Autism. As my gift to you, through the month of October, get my book for ½ off, for just $14.99 you can get started today with the nutritional changes that can benefit your child and support improved attention, focus, and even mood!

Julie Matthews is a Certified Nutrition Consultant who received her master’s degree in medical nutrition with distinction from Arizona State University. She is also a published nutrition researcher and has specialized in complex neurological conditions, particularly autism spectrum disorders and ADHD for over 20 years. Julie is the award winning author of Nourishing Hope for Autism, co-author of a study proving the efficacy of nutrition and dietary intervention for autism published in the peer-reviewed journal, Nutrients, and also the founder of Download her free guide, 12 Nutrition Steps to Better Health, Learning, and Behavior.


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