Does Diet Affect Your Child’s Behavior?

diet and ADHD, healthy diet linked to child's behavior, elimination diet for better behavior,
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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. Believe me, 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 help when he started school. His kindergarten teacher said he was cheerful even when he preferred helping other kids to completing his own work.  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 skin tests. The outcome shocked us. My little boy reacted strongly to nearly everything I’d been feeding him. Worse, the doctor told us that our son’s breathing was dangerously impaired during 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 an elimination test to uncover additional food intolerances.

elimination diet, foods to help your child,
Wikimedia Commons

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.

Now scientific evidence is accumulating to prove what parents have suspected all along. 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.

diet and behavior, ADHD and food allergies, food dye and impulse control disorders,
Wikimedia Commons

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. A new 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. 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.

food intolerance and behavior, what you eat is how you behave,
Image: Bit of Earth Farm

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. And 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.





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12 thoughts on “Does Diet Affect Your Child’s Behavior?

  1. My oldest – and probably my two boys absolutely have reactions to food. I have Celiac disease – an intolerance to wheat, oats, barley and rye. My body simply cannot process the food, it damages the villi in my intestines, making it very hard for me to absorb nutrients and digest food if I eat anything with those in them. Along the way of not being diagnosed, I ended up with a diagnosis of bippolar, asthma, fibromyalgia, endometriosis, and some really really severe food allergies. Like I could eat it one week and the next week it’s anaphalactic shock time.
    Then my daughter hit her teens. She’d always been moody and prone to drama. But suddenly she’s happy one minute. Suicidal the next. She be ill for days, have blood blisters all over her hands, raging headaches and pretty severe heartburn. At 14 she decided to try going gluten-free and see if that helped. Within days most of her symptoms cleared up. Within 2 weeks she was the sunny gregarious person I’d missed for 2 years. My sons decided to try going gluten free and the child who has a really hard time holding on to his temper didn’t have much of a problem anymore and our ‘ditzy’ boy was able to hold a conversation without stuttering, could remember instructions easily and hours later. Due to some complications, neither of the boys are gluten-free anymore until they get tested. But my daughter has been gluten-free for a year and the ONLY time she starts acting bi-polar and in a lot of pain is when she accidentally gets glutened.
    And me? I never was bi-polar. I was vitamin deficient and messed up from eating gluten my whole life. My allergies cleared up and the only thing I still can’t eat is walnuts and banana’s which my dad is allergic to as well. I just ate shrimp for my 35th birthday when 2 Christmas’ ago they sent me into anaphalactic shock.
    My suspicion is that my youngest son doesn’t have an attention or auditory processing issues. He has Celiac – which a large percentage of the population does have, though it’s very underdiagnosed.

    1. What a powerful testament to the different ways food can affect mood, behavior, and much more. Thank you so much for sharing your family’s journey Meredith.

  2. You have just described what happens to me when I have certain things I’m allergic to. My mother did the trail and error diet with me because my doctor at the time didn’t believe in allergies. I have observed when I eat Wheat especially, my behaviour changes drastically. I’m glad to know that I’m not alone! Wonderful article!

  3. I strongly suggest looking into a paleo/primal type diet: exclude all grain (including corn – it’s a grain, not a veg), legumes, sugars (of all kinds) and seed oils, include good quality meats (pastured, if possible) of the ruminant variety (cow, bison, sheep…) and make sure you don’t skimp on the fat content.

    Today’s modern diet – low-fat, factory farmed meat, high sugar, ultra processed, high grain, vegetable oils – is not good for our kid’s brains and leaves them foggy, short tempered, prone to depression and with limited ability to concentrate (all things that are symptomatic of diet based disease that adults often suffer from before being diagnosed with diabetes, adrenal fatigue, metabolic disorder, etc).

    We are new to eating this way and not yet perfect, but I am seeing improvements in my elder son’s behaviour, handwriting and temperament.

    Check out:

      1. After knowing we needed to change the way we ate, we experimented with vegetarianism. Through my nutritional research I discovered WAPF and transformed our diet into basically what I grew up eating! Now, we are moving into paleo/primal type eating – what Dr Harris is now calling Archevore.

        The kids haven’t had a problem with the changes at all. I don’t get any whines for noodles or rice or taters, which we haven’t cooked at home for 4 months now. It’s the sugar and out of house food that is proving our buggaboo. But, if we can finally make a break with processed food, and dramatically cut down on eating out, we’ll be sailing, and I can lose the excess weight I’ve steadily put on from eating a super carb heavy diet for the last 20 years.

  4. Thank you for this article! I have just begun to experiment with eliminating certain foods from my diet, after years of ongoing migraines, skin issues, cloudy thoughts, etc. I really believe gluten is a main culprit. I’ve been tested for Celiac, but the tests came back normal. However, I notice a huge difference when I consume foods with gluten in it. My boss and co-workers have also said they notice a big change, too. My body aches, like I’m getting a cold or something, on top of the migraines, nausea, brain fog, etc. I’ve also noticed one of my daughters has similar issues at times, too. Perhaps trying the paleo diet might be something worth checking out!
    My brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early 20’s, and I can’t help but think that he might have had a food sensitivity, too, on top of his disease. His symptoms were severe. Although, there’s no way to ever find out. He’s no longer alive.

    1. I’m so sorry about your brother, Lora. I hope an elimination diet boosts your health and your daughter’s health.

      My main gluten intolerance symptom has always been aching joints, nothing as severe as yours. But once I gave it up my long-term allergies and sinus problems cleared up like magic.

      1. Thanks so much, Laura! It’s so good to know I’m not alone. Most people think I’m crazy, and that food cannot be the culprit, even my husband. Although, he’s starting to come around after seeing the changes. I’ve had severe seasonal allergies since I was little. I got tested at an allergist about 10 years ago, and I reacted to everything, especially grass pollen. They didn’t do any kind of food testing, though. My symptoms seem to be getting worse, as I get older.

          1. Thanks for all the information! This is all very helpful to me. I love that you have dairy cows. We recently purchased chickens for their eggs. We’re in the process of building our coop and developing our little urban farm in our backyard. We’re newbies at all of it, but I love it!

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