Does food affect behavior?


Sam was a few months shy of two-and-a-half.  Let me stress, two-and-a-half, which in little boy terms can easily mean energetic, unruly, wild and unpredictable.  But I felt there was something else going on.  There were times when he was almost uncontrollable.  I'm all about raising a free spirited/strong-willed/high energy child, but he seemed to be the only child his age whose behavior was quite this intense.  I found myself wondering if this was ADHD presenting itself…already?  My family has a history of ADHD which made me even more concerned and curious.

As a nutritionist I believe there is a link between food and most other aspects of our lives, including behavior and that natural and whole foods are the best for our kids.  But that IS what Sam was eating for the very most part, aside from parties or the occasional treat.  It was around this time that a study came out supporting the link between food dyes and increased hyperactivity in children.  But like I said, he wasn't eating much of that kind of food at all.

The Offenders:
Here's a little background on the food and behavior issue: An overwhelming amount of foods on the market, especially those that are marketed to children, contain artificial ingredients including food dyes.  These dyes include Blue No. 1, 2, Yellow No. 5, Red No 3 etc.  and can be found in everything from soup to ice-cream to pasta sauces.  These ingredients require labeling in other countries or have been eliminated by companies like Mars (European M&Ms don't contain them but US M&M's do).  In the US you have to check the ingredient list closely.  And these may not be the only ingredients that are contributing to behavior issues in our children.  Artificial flavors like vanillin and some preservatives like BHA, BHT and TBHQ (I remember these for the BH like the B& H in BeHavior) are also thought to be offenders.  So what is it about these 3 additives: colors, flavors and preservatives?  They're made with petroleum, have toxic byproducts and/or can be known carcinogens with negative neurotixic effects.  Some people may not be affected by them, but many are.  A British study saw an increase in hyperactivity in 3 year olds following consumption of these ingredients.  And depending on one's chemistry and genetics, the effects may be more pronounced.  Many parents have seen drastic improvements in their child's behavior by eliminating them.  And in turn, these children are learning better, behaving better and report feeling better too.

And could there be anything else?
So was it just the rare dum-dum or occasional Sweet Mandy B's blue frosted cupcake that was causing this?  My research turned up something else that was interesting.  During this particular time we were eating a lot of oatmeal topped with raisins.  According to the Feingold Association, a known expert in the role of food and synthetic additives in behavior, learning and health problems, dried fruit can be a major contributor to the behavior issues in some children due to its high levels of salicylates.  Some children don't metabolize this natural chemical well causing it to build up and cause behavioral issues. Salicylates are naturally occurring in many foods from fruits and vegetables to nuts and vinegar.   Where and how a food is grown can vary the amount of salicylates in any given food so an exact list of foods to avoid is hard to pin down.  If you feel your child might benefit from trying this diet, an elimination approach is your best starting point and as a dietitian, I would recommend having your doctor or a nutrition professional help you with this as it can be very restrictive.  Here is a Salicylates food chart, a good starting point.  For Sam, I eliminated dried fruit and the three other artificial offenders and saw an almost immediate improvement.  These days I can't always control what Sam eats, nor should I.  He does still react to synthetic additives but dried fruit is okay unless he's been eating more than a small serving every now and then.  And if I feel he's acting up more than usual and all other variables are controlled, I will look at his dietary patterns.  Maybe that's a nerdy dietitian thing, but it helps.  Sam is still a spirited child…he's his wonderful, natural self!


PS, Kraft recently announced that it will stop adding food dyes to some of their macaroni and cheese products marketed to children.   As always, it's still a good idea to check the labels.

photos by Erin Konrath





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