• 05-05-2016

    Food Behaviour: Is Your Child's Behaviour Linked to the Food They Eat?

    When I sit with parents in my treatment room I repeatedly hear the same themes:

    -   How do I get my child to stop arguing about everything?

    -   I just do the chores because I am tired of asking my child to do them.

    -   I see my child irritating other children by teasing and poking at them.

    -   Little things seem to make my child so angry, even violent.

    -   My child doesn’t take responsibility, always blaming others.

    There are many reasons a child may display these behaviours.  I would like to focus on just one component though: food.

    What a child consumes can have a huge impact on the way that they act and respond to others.

    Food Ingredients to Watch For

    Most people will start by blaming sugar and undoubtedly sugar can be involved, but it is not the only culprit.  But let’s start by looking at sugar. 


    The human body does not have the ability to receive large amounts of sugar in short amounts of time – such as is what is found in sodas.  When excessive sugar is eaten, the brain reduces the production of a signaling chemical (BDNF) thereby lowering the ability to focus, reason and form memories.  Mental communication pathways can literally slow down.  Free radicals can increase and result in cell death. High blood sugar can cause neurons to misfire leading to inappropriate messages.  Abnormal brain waves are produced.  As well, an increase in stress hormone production is seen after consuming high amounts of sugar, which can lead to agitation and anxiety.

    As big a problem as sugar is, it may actually be low on the list of ingredients that negatively affect behaviour. Many of the foods that are readily available, easy to pack and preferred by kids (and many adults) are loaded with perfectly legal and highly questionable additives. Let's look at a few.

         Artificial Sweeteners

    Researchers have shown that diet sodas, when compared to sugar-based drinks, produce a distinct decrease in the ability to delay gratification (seen in daily life as a child who is not able to wait their turn).  

    Artificial sweeteners are implicated here. The brain expects a rise in blood sugar that never arrives. The result is increased impulsiveness as the body seeks to rebalance its unfulfilled biological expectations.  There is evidence that artificial sweeteners act as excitotoxins. This means that they excite the nerve cells in the brain to such a degree that they cause either damage or cause death of those cells. Gut bacteria is negatively altered by artificial sweeteners and imbalanced digestive bacteria can have indirect adverse nervous system effects.

         Artificial Colouring

    Children both with and without Attention Deficit Disorder diagnosis are equally affected by artificial colours in foods; all children’s attention and behaviour suffered after consuming common artificial food dyes. In Europe, some of the common dyes we use have been banned or must have warning labels.  One of the most highly used dyes is simply listed as caramel coloring and has been shown to cause high blood pressure (and more insidious problems), which many people can only perceive as anxiety.

         Sodium Benzoate

    A preservative called sodium benzoate found in drinks and salad dressings has been shown to increase hyperactivity.  There is some evidence this chemical also increases skin sensitivity and reactions.  Flavor enhancers such as MSG (and other deviously hidden similar chemicals) work by acting directly on brain receptors that trigger excitability. Australian research into flavor enhancers’ effect has led the development of the Feingold diet which can be used as a guide to minimize exposure.

    Combining Additives

    One thing that is often overlooked is the effect of combining additives.  Science requires an isolation of factors to determine proof of a theory: simply put, minimizing the variables can lead to an increased value of the research findings.  This becomes an obstacle, however, as it is possible, (even likely) more problems can occur when we mix additives, drugs, chemicals and allergens than when we consume additives alone.  Most reports of these combining effects look at dangerous or challenging drug interactions because drugs are easy to track. However, it is likely that consuming highly processed foods could produce similar results, but there is no mechanism for tracking them as many of them are not even listed on consumer labels.

    What's The Solution

    I hear you asking, “What then is the answer to these challenging behavioural problems?”  From a food perspective, it comes back to simplified eating habits.  The guidelines I give most of my patients are straightforward.  If you are eating something that your great-grandparents would have recognized as a food then you are off to a good start.  The closer a food looks to the way that it did when it was harvested the greater the chances that it is good for you and has fewer of these harmful added chemicals.  Processing food rarely makes it healthier. Mostly, processing makes it more appealing, both in appearance and in flavor while increasing shelf life.  Food science has worked at finding the ultimate palate pleasing, brain stimulating concoctions with no regard to how challenging the products are to the consumers. 

    It is often difficult to get children to eat healthy foods, but healthy foods can taste good. Over time they will develop a palate for a broader spectrum of flavours than salty, sweet and fat (which are the basis of most processed foods). 

    Have a look at this video clip which distinctly shows the difference in behaviours of groups of children who were fed either highly processed foods or more whole foods.

    The results are evident and dramatic. Which of these two groups do you want to deal with every day? 


    Photo Copyright: sifotography / 123RF Stock Photo