What Foods (Not Just Sugar) Affect Kids Behavior?
By Marcie Vaske, MS, LN
September 24, 2019
If your kiddos are acting a bit goofy, have you ever thought “What did they eat today!?” If so, you’re not alone. Maybe this scenario sounds familiar… you just fed your kids a breakfast of pancakes and syrup only to watch their mood change from excited and happy, to cranky and tired a bit later. You’re not imagining it; research tells us there is a connection with not only sugar (as many parents have observed!) and behavior, but also with foods that are all around us.
In and out of clinical practice, I and my fellow dietitian colleagues know and observe the connection between what we eat and how it affects our behavior. We see this not only in adults, but in children too. You’ve heard or even said it yourself after picking up your child after a birthday party or coming home from a weekend with the grandparents, “They must have had too much sugar; they are bouncing off the walls!” Studies support this anecdotal finding echoed by parents everywhere. One study measured the visible effects of sugar after giving kids the amount of sugar equal to one soda. As a result, their test scores went down – in fact, one hour after consuming the sugar, they made twice as many mistakes. The sugar-loaded students also showed more "inappropriate behavior" during free play.
Sugar, while it is one of the top offenders of behavior change and does indeed make our kids go a little wild, is not the only food to change behavior for the worse. What other foods can cause poor school performance, agitation, depression, anger, anxiety and panic attacks?
Here’s a list of the top offenders when it comes to the connection between food and human behavior:
Food Dyes Affect Behavior/Mood
Ever buy cereal or cupcakes from the supermarket? They are likely full of food dyes. Over the past 50 years, chemical dyes used in foods have increased by a whopping 500%! U.S. food manufacturers primarily use three dyes (Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6). You will find these types of dyes in everything from cereal to toothpaste, applesauce to cough syrup.
We even have studies dating back to the 1970s where researchers found removing Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 dyes from a child’s diet had a profound effect. Food dyes have been linked most notably to ADHD in children. By avoiding food dyes, children have better attention and focus. So much so that these dyes are banned in Europe, but not yet in the U.S., even though American companies like Kellogg’s, General Mills and Kraft have completely gotten rid of artificial dyes in their products sold overseas. Hmmm, something is wrong with that picture. So until (fingers crossed) they’re banned here, you’ll have to be on the lookout yourself! Sometimes the label reads as straightforward as the names listed above, but other times carmine, carminic acid or cochineal extract refers to red dye and tartrazine for yellow dye.
Gluten Can Affect Behavior/Mood
Children and adults with undiagnosed celiac disease have a much higher risk of ADHD than the general population. One study found that among a test group of individuals diagnosed with ADHD, 15% tested positive for celiac disease. This is a markedly higher incidence than is found in the general population, which sees a 1% rate. Once these individuals adhered to a gluten-free diet, parents reported significant improvements in their child’s behavior and functioning. Gluten intolerance is becoming increasingly common. It’s estimated that up to 8% of all individuals experience gluten intolerance, and in those individuals, similar behavioral results are seen as with people with celiac disease.
It’s extremely rewarding working with child clients and their parents to help these families thrive. I’ve had numerous child clients whose parents were able to eliminate gluten (and most sugar) from their diets resulting in a substantial decrease in their symptoms of attention deficit, insomnia and anxiety.
MSG Can Affect Behavior/Mood
MSG (mononodium glutamate) is used in a myriad of foods in grocery stores, restaurants, school cafeterias and more. It’s in everything from fast foods, processed meats, frozen meals, soup mixes, salad dressings, to crackers and many other processed foods. MSG, as dangerous as it is, makes food taste good and is dirt cheap, just like sugar.
MSG is an excitotoxin, a type of neurotoxin that essentially excites your brain cells to death. It has profound effects on the mood and behavior in children such as: mood swings, rage reactions, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorders, lethargy, sleepiness and insomnia. According to neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock, author of Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills, MSG crosses the blood/brain barrier and can cause the developing nerve fibers to be mis-wired. Unfortunately, there are numerous pseudonyms for MSG that may appear on ingredient labels that you need to lookout for such as hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast and sodium caseinate.
If you’re overwhelmed by this list but desperately want your kiddos’ mood and behavior to improve, I’d highly encourage you and your child to make a nutrition consultation appointment via phone or in-person with me or one of my colleagues. Having kids attend is important for success. We take time to educate and explain how what they eat affects their daily lives in a context of who they are and their unique personalities. We are here to help you make the connection between what you (or your children) eat and how you feel as a result, then learn how to incorporate changes in a sustainable, realistic way.
- The New York Times, F.D.A. Panel to Consider Warnings for Artificial Food Colorings https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/30/health/policy/30fda.html?_r=2&
- Science, Behavioral responses to artificial food colors https://science.sciencemag.org/content/207/4438/1487
- VeryWellMind, Can a Gluten-Free Diet Help You Manage Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder https://www.verywellmind.com/gluten-and-adhd-562627
- Blaylock MD, R., 1997. Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills