Yes, Diet Can Affect A Child’s Behavior

research diet and behavior, food intolerance and mood, food intolerance and school problems,

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I’m one of those annoying people.  I grow enough organic produce to put up hundreds of jars of home canned goods each year. I grind grain to make fresh flour, use coconut oil instead of canola, even make my own herbal tinctures. I was probably a little nutty about nutrition before I had kids. I got a lot nuttier afterwards. All of my health-foodie ways didn’t ward off my third child’s problems. He was born with a hole in his heart. Even after that was resolved he rarely seemed fully healthy. He had asthma, chronic skin irritations, an ever-stuffy nose, and low resistance to any passing germ. He never complained and his disposition was so sunny that we believed the doctors who told us there was no reason to worry. I reassured myself that his life was full of good food, wonderful experiences, and plenty of nurturing from our close extended family. But that sunny disposition didn’t ease the way for him at school.

ADHD and diet,

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His kindergarten teacher said he was cheerful but he preferred helping other kids to completing his own work.  The next year it got worse. His first grade teacher complained that he was distracted, didn’t get his work done, and tended to sit with his hands folded over his head in a posture that enraged her. At her insistence we took him to a psychologist. He was diagnosed with ADD.

I was sure we could find a solution, maybe by further perfecting his already healthy diet. So we took him to a pediatric allergist for a series of tests. The outcome shocked us. My little boy reacted strongly to nearly everything I’d been feeding him. Worse, the doctor warned us that our son’s breathing was dangerously impaired during food intolerances may surprise you,  and after the test, which indicated that his food allergies were serious. Final test results showed that my son was allergic to soy, to nearly a dozen fruits, and to every grain but rice. The foods I had long suspected, including chocolate and dairy, were not a problem at all.

The doctor was so concerned by my son’s asthma flare up that he advised the gold standard, an elimination test to uncover additional food intolerances. We went home with a long list of dietary and environmental allergens to avoid. My son’s dinner that night was a bowl of rice cereal. Ever the optimist, my son noted that he’d be happy to live on chocolate milk.

For decades experts have denounced any link between diet and behavior problems. They often poo poo’d a connection between common health problems and food as well. Back in the 1970’s, parents who insisted their children thrived on the Feingold Diet were told the evidence was entirely anecdotal. Studies that disproved diet and behavior links, despite questionable procedures, were widely publicized. One such study examined children’s reaction to food dyes. Both the experimental and control group of children were given beverages containing sweeteners and artificial flavoring, only the experimental group’s beverage also contained food dye. Both groups of children behaved similarly after the drink. Claims for a connection between diet and behavior were then denounced although press releases rarely mentioned how the tests were conducted. But scientific evidence is accumulating to prove what parents have suspected all along.

research diet and child behavior, diet and mood, diet and ADHD,

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Our children’s minds and bodies are built by what they eat. Some children (like mine) are much more sensitive than others. Previous studies have shown that even children who are not diagnosed with ADHD or other behavioral disorders react to drinks containing artificial color and sodium benzoate. Not just a mild reaction. They typically increase their activity levels by one-half to two-thirds, in league with their ADHD peers.

But everywhere our kids turn, marketers push processed and nutritionally devoid foods at them. In fact, more than a third of the calories U.S. children consume now come from junk food.  Is it worth fighting the battle against these overwhelming influences? Certainly seems that way. More and more data is piling up to prove the point. And it’s compelling. Research shows that a junk food diet is linked to a lower IQ and a greater likelihood of school failure. And it’s not just junk food. We might feed our kids the healthiest foods, but if they don’t tolerate these foods well chances are they will react.

One study took a close look at the way ADHD behavioral problems may be caused or accelerated by diet. One hundred children with ADHD symptoms, ages 4 to 8, took part. Fifty of the children and their parents were counseled about healthful diets. The other fifty children were put on diets limited to foods unlikely to cause reactions: rice, turkey, lamb, carrots, lettuce, pears, and other hypoallergenic items.

elimination diet, food intolerance,

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By the study’s end the majority of the children on the limited diet showed significant improvement on a variety of behavioral ratings. Before the diet their symptoms put them in the moderate to severe range of ADHD, but diet intervention reduced to symptoms to those classified as mild or non-clinical. That’s big news.

In my son’s case, changing his diet wasn’t easy. But we could see the difference in a week’s time. His stuffy nose cleared. The bumps on his skin smoothed out. And we discovered that he kept his arms folded over his head so often because it expanded his lungs and help him breathe, something he didn’t need to do as his asthma got better. My son didn’t stick with all the new dietary limitations all the time, especially as he got older. And a restricted diet wasn’t the whole answer.

Together we learned that school wasn’t the right place for his particular gifts to flourish. Once we started homeschooling we were free to explore more natural learning. Without the pressure of cafeteria lunches, classroom snacks, and school parties it was much easier to feed him the foods his body tolerated well. Including chocolate milk. Being the nut I am, I took even chocolate milk to the extreme. Now we have dairy cows.

21 thoughts on “Yes, Diet Can Affect A Child’s Behavior

  1. You are the best kind of nut out there! I battled food intolerances/allergies, for years, with Nathan. All of his Asperger’s symptoms are exacerbated by dairy and artificial food colorings. It’s certainly an uphill battle to convince others of the reality of food intolerances/allergies, but at least we are making a difference for our own sons!


  2. Food and nourishment and nutrition is such a journey and you are doing a great job! I’m glad you’re a nut! I just found out that a lot of foods I thought were “good” are actually not good for me… and a lot of foods I thought were “bad” for me I must eat. I’m so glad your son is getting healthier. I think this issue is sooo important and I’m glad to read how you have taken matters into your own hands. I only recently found out that my mom both grew and made my baby food from scratch when I was an infant. What an act of love! I bet your kids will see it this way too. And I love the part about him being happy to live on chocolate milk! That is very Maasai in a way. 🙂


    • So nice to know your own mom grew and made your baby food. What a great start and what complete tenderness.

      I’m on the same path Rebecca. For years I’ve made homemade bread, pizza, pasta, only to find out the I don’t do well at all with gluten. Since giving it up I feel a lot better. But I do miss pizza!


  3. Yay for tenderness!! You know what, I have been going through the same thing! A couple people had suggested I try giving up gluten but my attitude was like–if I can’t eat a chocolate croissant, I don’t want to participate in this plan, especially since I am a dyed-in-the-wool muffin-maker! I just started seeing an amazing homeopath who said I HAD to give up gluten and I had gotten to the point where I was willing to do anything. It made a huge difference.

    Have you tried Annalise Roberts’ Gluten-Free Baking Classics? I’ve been testing her recipes using the special ultrafine authentic foods flour. (It’s pricey, but the best source I’ve found is — free shipping — though you might be able to do ultrafine grinding at home?)! I haven’t tried it yet, but here’s her gluten-free pizza crust recipe:


    • Thanks Rebecca! I haven’t yet found a gluten free pizza recipe that does it for me. I’ll gladly give this a try. So far I’ve been boosting the publishing industry by purchasing gluten free cookbooks, mostly finding that the recipes have much more fat and sugar to compensate. I really appreciate the link!


  4. My 11-year-old son can’t tolerate artificial dyes and most artificial preservatives, like sodium benzoate, BHT, BHA. Just eliminating those four items takes out 90% of junk food right there. Many people automatically think red dye is the only culprit and say they tried getting rid of dyes but didn’t see a difference. I know firsthand you have to eliminate them all. Yellow dye is actually worse for my son than red. No one in our family eats dyes anymore, but if I happen to have any I can totally tell a difference in how I feel. So I don’t think they affect only the super sensitive. I think they probably affect a larger portion of the population than we realize. I feel like I need Xanax when I eat dyes! No wonder anti-anxiety med prescriptions are so high.

    Also, unstable blood sugar levels affects his behavior too. He has reactive hypoglycemia. It caused a lot of problems in school. Now that we homeschool I can tell before he starts having mood change that his blood sugar is dropping. He can’t think clearly, doing things like misspelling simple words or not being able to do simple math. It can quickly escalate to irrational and erratic actions. Discovering the blood sugar link to his behavior has been a real eye opener too.


    • You’re right Heather. So few of us actually “get” what’s in processed foods that can affect us. As you say, wonder how many people wouldn’t need mood stabilizing meds if they ate better.

      And I haven’t thought much about low blood sugar affecting kids, although any of us who eat today’s high sugar low fiber diet are probably erratically swinging from high to low blood sugar all day. It’s funny I haven’t thought about that because I have hypoglycemia. My hands shake and I feel weak long before I realize I’m hungry. Of course my kids are likely to have the problem too. Thanks for pointing it out.


      • I’m glad you said that about your hands and weakness before realizing you’re hungry. My son doesn’t realize he’s getting hungry either and it baffled me! I was like, how do you not know this? I don’t have that problem so I couldn’t relate, and no one I know has that to happen either. I need to work on adding more fiber to his diet to see if that would help with stabilization. I haven’t thought of that either, so I’m glad you mentioned it too. His glucose levels are so erratic and unpredictable, but he also has a very high metabolism.


      • Actually it seems that protein and avoiding any but complex carbs really makes the difference in low blood sugar. A breakfast of oatmeal topped with fruit, something I thought was healthy, just doesn’t cut it for someone with low blood sugar. Eggs and veggies topped with cheese keeps my hypoglycemia stable several hours longer than an oatmeal breakfast.


  5. I have heard GAPS diet (from ‘Gut and Psychology Syndrome’ by Natasha Campbell-McBride) is great for healing asthma, allergies, ADHD etc. It is a temporary restriction of certain foods (for no more than a few years) which can totally heal so that even if one used to be allergic to e.g. grains, he can start eating them with no problems. I learnt about this diet through Weston S Price Foundation. I think it’s worth checking out.


    • Thanks Marta. I haven’t read that but have read a lot about “leaky gut” syndrome, which explains so many auto immune disorders. I’ve learned a lot from the Weston Price Foundation. In fact, the research I’ve read is helping me to slowly change after being a vegetarian for most of my life.


  6. Thank you for this post. My son is so sensitive to processed foods that even if he has a tiny bit he is a completely different boy. My best friend is a kindergarten teacher and just told me today that someone brought in candy bars, cup cakes, and juice for the whole class to celebrate his birthday. I am seriously stressed out about that… How can I send my sensitive son to school with no control over what foods are offered to him? I feel kind of helpless about it all. It makes me mad that I have to consider alternative schooling over this issue, but I am willing to do whatever is best for my son. Glad to know I am not alone.


    • It’s wonderful that you are so attuned to your son. I suspect many more children are affected by processed foods than any of us realize, but it takes caring adults to notice. School makes this difficult. My older kids were in school before we started homeschooling. I tried everything to make school work, including food-wise. I volunteered in the classrooms, served on PTA boards, and advocated for whole foods in the lunchroom. Literally nothing I did changed the culture of processed food. For example, some teachers gave out candy as rewards. When parents complained, they switched to “fruit snacks”—you know what I mean, gummy blobs of food coloring and artificial flavor with some microcosm of fruit in the mix so the package could proclaim “contains real fruit!” Some parents supplied alternatives, but then the kids complained! They’d already been indoctrinated into the read-a-book-get-candy mindset (lets not even get into how that takes away the natural pleasure of reading). Then there were birthdays, as your friend noted, with little advance warning of what treats will be brought in. Plus school parties. The increase in food allergies has helped a little, prompting school officials to be more careful about peanuts and occasionally gluten. In our case this backfired, and parents were no longer able to bring in home made foods to share with the class, only packaged foods with ingredients clearly marked. I packed separate snacks for my kids and they never wanted to eat the cafeteria food, but it was a constant struggle, like holding back a tide. A friend’s diabetic child regularly succumbed to food pressure even though teachers were supposed to be watching to make sure he had separate treats (cheese crackers rather than cupcakes, for example) but this little boy just wanted to fit in, no matter how bad it made him feel or how much it endangered him. We ended up homeschooling, but I know that concerned parents exerting pressure on schools can make a difference, it’s just a hard journey.


  7. Definitely read the GAPS book. We have a similar story to yours but after years discovered GAPS and it has really wrapped up everything very well — totally fascinating stuff. There are some good youtube videos with Natasha Campbell McBride as well.


  8. Not just processed foods… my dd is 21 and we have battled food issues from infancy. When I was breast feeding, she had horrible “colic”, which was completely resolved when I gave up citrus. At 4yo, she had headaches severe enough to warrant an MRI. Turns out, we had moved from a remote part of Michigan where we didn’t have many fresh fruits and landed in New Jersey where she discovered fresh strawberries. And still today, strawberries give her horrible headaches. We have eliminated gluten and seen more improvement. But no help from doctors or allergists. We just keep tracking her diet…keep looking for answers. She gave up processed foods a few years back…we grow organic, she cooks for herself from scratch. We just keep looking. Right now she is doing pretty well…but I still wish she could feel 100% good for a change.


    • Glad she’s better. It’s extreme, but some people have had luck starting an elimination diet with 3 days of fasting — even longer if they can manage. Then they introduce a single food every two days. I know, extreme, but I know people it has helped. A friend’s son developed severe digestive issues and was given all sorts of dire diagnoses. By the time he was 11 they did the fasting diet. My friend says they discovered, on their own, that he has “leaky gut syndrome” and was developing more and more food allergies. Hope your dd gets it figured out up to 100%


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