Does food have anything to do with the way your child is behaving?

The links between food and behavior have long been researched. The possible effects from a change in diet range from increased happiness and feelings of alertness to increased likelihood of depression, mood swings or anxiety. So, does food play a significant role in the behavior of children who can’t sit still or focus in class? What about children who have tantrums or struggle with anxiety? Recent research suggests that one of the answers to hyperactive behavior lies in a child’s diet.

In an anecdotal study carried out by the UK’s Channel 4, children between the ages of 5 and 9 attended a party where they were split into two different groups. In the first group, children were fed what we would consider to be healthy snacks, like apple slices, carrot sticks and hummus. In the second group, children were fed candy, chips, cookies and soda.

After eating, the children played party games and researchers stealthily measured and recorded instances of “bad” behavior. Over the course of the party, the two groups’ abilities to follow instructions, concentrate, and retain information were remarkably different.  

Results:

Type of Behavior:

Healthy Food Group Vs. Unhealthy Food Group

 

Not only was there a difference in behavior, but the children in the healthy food group did 48% better at the party games. You can learn more or watch the video of the results here.

In the video, the researchers discuss how the exact cause of the group’s behavioral differences is unknown. The food is obviously affecting the children’s behavior, but what about the food is it that causes the change? Sugars, processing, nutrients, lack of nutrients, additives? Research suggests that the difference may be due to the additives and food dyes used in processed foods, such as cookies, candies, and sodas.

A possible link between food additives, like food coloring, and hyperactivity was first brought to the public’s attention in the 1970s. In the past 40 years, dozens of studies have been conducted demonstrating that food dyes and other additives can cause behavioral issues in children.

In a 2007 double-blind, placebo-controlled study, researchers led by Jim Stevenson, a professor of psychology at the University of Southampton, concluded that a variety of common food dyes and the preservative sodium benzoate may cause some children to become measurably more hyperactive and distractible.

A more recent study, the Meta-analysis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, restriction diet, and synthetic food color additives, conducted with Health and Science University, published in 2012 concludes that “a restriction diet benefits some children with ADHD.” Restriction diets (which excluded some items from the child’s diet including food dyes) reduced ADHD symptoms in approximately 33 percent of children with the disorder. The study also estimated that 8 percent of children with ADHD may have symptoms related to food dyes.

We know that food dyes aren’t the only factor affecting ADD/ADHD, but avoiding food dyes can certainly be a starting point for finding what triggers or worsens children’s challenges with the disorder. Helping your children stay away from artificial dyes may benefit their school life by helping them focus and be less inclined to misbehave.

Some artificial dyes include:

Color and Number

This dye can be found in:

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One way to insure your children won’t be eating food dye is to stay away from highly processed foods and buy fresh, whole foods instead.   It can be tough to shop for foods when considering dietary restrictions but there’s one rule with food dyes you can usually fall back on:  if it was made in a plant, it almost definitely has one of these food dyes. If it was made by a plant, you’re good to go!  Reading the labels on your favorite foods might be a pain, but imagine the difference it can make for your children. After a few trips, you’ll begin to know which foods are safe and which foods to avoid, and your family’s bodies and minds will be all the better for it!

Further reading 

Food Standards Agency

UK Food Guide

From Hyper to Calm

More extensive list  

Be Food Smart

Further reading 

Food Standards Agency

UK Food Guide

From Hyper to Calm

More extensive list  

Be Food Smart