Q&A with Shawna Hughes: Mom, Nutritionist, and Expert on Food As A Tool For Regulation and ADHD
Tell us about yourself and how you came to be an expert in family nutrition?
When my eldest daughter was an infant, she had a stubborn case of thrush that wouldn’t budge even with prescriptions. I visited a Nutritionist and was told to try probiotics, which completely cleared the condition! That was the catalyst for my career change from Recreation Therapist to Holistic Nutritionist. Since then, I’ve been focused on finding the most effective, natural solutions for kids’ health issues. And I’m rather obsessed with telling people about them because unfortunately, many parents are unaware of the incredible results they can get with diet, supplements, and lifestyle changes.
How much does food have an impact on children’s ability to regulate themselves?
Food is fuel for our brain. Without the proper fuel (adequate nutrients), anyone will be functioning at a suboptimal level. We need the right combination of foods to provide adequate protein to regulate blood sugar (more about that below), and adequate nutrients to provide raw materials for brain chemicals that allow kids to stay calm and focus.
As we head back to making school lunches, what are some things parents should keep in mind when they pack their kids' food?
A lot of kids are eating lunches that are nearly 100% carbohydrates (fruits, grains, processed foods like crackers, cookies, granola bars, bread, etc.) While carbs are an essential part of everyone’s diet, there needs to be a balance of carbs, protein, and fat at every meal. Carbs provide quick fuel but when eaten on their own can lead to blood sugar spikes and crashes aka: a quick energy boost followed by “Hanger” - when kids become irritable and unable to focus or regulate themselves an hour or two after eating. Parents laugh about hanger, but it’s actually not a normal human condition and indicates that blood sugar has been fluctuating too much. Even carbs that are not sweet can have this effect when the diet is not balanced.
When packing kids lunches, what are some foods you avoid and what are some you love?
I avoid high sugar foods because of the quick blood sugar spike and crash that they can cause. I also warn parents about relying too much on too many high-carb, flour-based products like crackers, bread, pasta, etc. Each day, I try to include a high-protein food that accounts for about ⅓ of the lunch box.
Higher protein foods can be any sort of meat in a sandwich or on its own (kids love pepperettes!), cheese or yogurt (if they tolerate dairy), sunflower or pumpkin seeds, chickpeas (raw or roasted). There are also great products like “Good Bites” from Sun Rype that are quick little protein/fat bites in a variety of flavours. Some kids like to take a small protein bar or enjoy a protein smoothie like Orgain pre-made shakes on the side of lunch.
This can also help with hydration. When kids are dehydrated they really struggle to focus and can be moody. Check their water bottles when they get home an ask about how much they’re drinking to make sure this isn’t contributing to their struggles.
How often do you think kids should be fed to help with regulation?
I think it really depends on the child and how much they tend to eat in one sitting. If kids eat really large meals, they’ll need fewer snacks. The key is to try to fit protein or fat into every meal or snack so they’re not burning through food quickly and constantly getting hungry/hangry.
How can food help with conditions like ADHD, emotional dysregulation, and inattention?
In my practice, we focus on 2 main things: regulating blood sugar and addressing digestive issues. As mentioned above, when blood sugar is constantly spiking and crashing, it’s going to bring a lot of variations in mood, focus, and activity levels.
Digestive issues (which are VERY common in ADHD) can lead to worse symptoms because:
A: they’re distracting when they cause physical discomfort (think of how cooperative and pleasant you are with a stomach ache vs. when you feel great).
B: Our gut is directly linked to our brain - most of our serotonin and a good chunk of dopamine (the neurotransmitters that helps us feel calm, motivated, and regulate sleep) are synthesized in our gut. Bad gut = not enough neurotransmitters = worse symptoms.
Do you recommend supplements and how do I know if my kids need them?
Supplements are always a very individual recommendation based on a child’s symptoms, current diet, and other health conditions. Almost all kids would benefit from a personalized supplement regimen to fill in the gaps in their diet. My kids take 6 per day despite eating a balanced diet - it’s just really hard to get in 100% of everything every day.
Common deficiencies in ADHD kids include Iron, Vitamin D, Omega-3s and Zinc. I wouldn’t recommend supplementing with zinc or Iron without working with a health professional as they can cause a lot of problems if you overdo it. Omega 3s and Vitamin D are a good option for most kids, especially if they don’t eat fatty fish like salmon.
I have a free ADHD supplement guide for those who wish to learn more. If you sign up for my email list on www.shawnahughesnutrition.com, it will come to your inbox along with a masterclass on supplementing and a few other masterclasses related to ADHD and picky eating.
What is your #1 way to help avoid meltdowns?
First thing’s first: try to figure out a pattern as to when the meltdowns are happening. If it’s 1-2 hours after eating, that points toward a “hangry” kid. This is a red flag to check protein and fat content of their meals/snacks.
If it’s right after school, it could be hanger or dehydration and you can bump up hydration throughout the day.
And above all, try to figure out the triggers. In my practice we do a lot more than just diet and supplementing. We go through a typical day, complete with meltdowns, to see if we can figure out what person, place, situation, or time of day tends to precede a meltdown. There are almost always patterns. Parents can address both the physical triggers (dehydration/hanger), and use situational problem-solving to nip these meltdowns in the bud.
A common example is a meltdown when trying to leave the house. A good way to avoid this is to have clear expectations of what needs to be done before you leave, visual reminders like checklists (ADHD kids really need visual reminders!), and very, very clear time limits and warnings - visual timers are very effective as many kids don’t have a clear idea of exactly how long 5 minutes is.
What can I do in the mornings before school so that I send my kids off best prepared for a long day of learning?!
Most kids are eating either high-carb cereal or toast for breakfast. This is not going to fuel them for a morning of learning.
We need to make sure they’re eating a protein source. This could sometimes be bacon, eggs, breakfast sausage, or yogurt, there are great granolas out there with higher protein (look for 4 + grams per serving). Again, pre-made or homemade protein shakes* are a great addition (even if on the side of higher-carb foods like cereal).
*I try to use plant-based protein powder for kids because whey protein can cause digestive issues.
Where can our followers get all your expert parenting advice?
I am most active on Instagram @shawnahughesadhdnutrition
You can learn more about me and my practice via my website:
Christine Russell Janis writes about life as a mom of four children, living in Paris, and travel on her life & style website ashadeofrose.com. You can also follow on social media @a.shade.of.rose.in.paris.