Better diet, better behavior

Are you anxious about going to a store with your son because of fear he might throw a temper tantrum? Do you wish your daughter could concentrate long enough to do her homework or simple chores around the house? Are you afraid of being called by your children’s school about one of your kids being disruptive in class or aggressive with other students? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you might be relieved to know that help may be as close as the kitchen table or your child’s lunch bag.

The modern American diet is linked to many childhood health problems. Most people already associate a junk food-laden diet with obesity, but the effect food has on children’s minds is just as important.

A growing body of scientific research has found that synthetic food dyes and certain other artificial additives found in processed foods, as well as pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables, can have profound effects on how children behave. A typical child’s diet may also lack the essential fatty acids that have been associated with normal healthy behavior in children.

Cut out the food dyes

Synthetic food dyes are used in many foods, ranging from breakfast cereals and yogurt to pickles, marshmallows, and soft drinks, but these petroleum-based additives are even more common in foods marketed to children, because manufacturers recognize that children are attracted to bright colors.

The connection between synthetic food dyes and children’s behavior problems has been known since the early 1970s, when the late Dr. Ben Feingold discovered this link. Numerous studies have since confirmed the harmful effects of synthetic food dyes on the behavior of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And a more recent study, published in the British medical journal Lancet, showed that these additives can trigger hyperactive behavior in all children, not just those already diagnosed with ADHD.

This study prompted the European Union to require labels on foods containing synthetic food dyes to warn that they “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” In addition, the Chinese government has recently proposed a ban on artificial colors in foods, citing health risks for adults and children from long-term consumption of these chemicals. This is ironic, since most synthetic food dyes consumed around the world are made in Chinese petrochemical factories.

In the United States, a Food and Drug Administration panel recently concluded that synthetic food dyes can have a detrimental effect on some children’s behavior, but the panel narrowly rejected requiring warning labels on foods containing these additives.

In the absence of warning labels, what can you do to help your kids avoid these harmful chemicals? Don’t be tempted to buy brightly colored processed foods just because your child is attracted to them. In particular, you should avoid foods containing synthetic food dyes (Red #40, Red #3, Yellow #5, Yellow #6, Blue #1, Blue #2, and Green #3).

Also, steer clear of processed foods with artificial flavors and the preservatives butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). The Feingold Association’s Foodlist and Shopping Guide includes thousands of brand-name foods that are free of these troublesome additives.

Feed them brain food

While most parents would intuitively prefer to limit the amount of fats in their children’s diet so as to prevent obesity, there are certain healthy fats that many children don’t get enough of. The most important of these are the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6, which are necessary for the brain to transmit signals between nerve cells in order to process information properly.

When you consider that 60 percent of a person’s brain is made up of fats and fatty acids, the importance of having a proper balance of fats in the diet becomes all too clear.

Studies have found that many children with ADHD are deficient in essential fatty acids, such as the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Research published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and the Journal of Attention Disorders has also shown that supplementation with essential fatty acids can result in a reduction of ADHD symptoms in some children.

A healthy diet for a child’s developing brain should include several servings of foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids every week. One of the best sources for these nutrients is fatty fish, such as salmon or sardines. It is no coincidence that fish have been called “brain food” for generations. Other good sources of these essential fats include flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil, as well as certain juices and milk products that are supplemented with omega-3s.

Pass on pesticides

The harmful effects of pesticides on the environment have been widely known since the publication of Rachael Carson’s groundbreaking book, “Silent Spring,” in the 1960s. Less well known are the effects these chemicals have on children’s behavior.

In 2001, 73 million pounds of organophosphate pesticides were applied in agricultural and residential settings in the United States. These pesticides have been shown to cause hyperactivity and cognitive deficits in animal studies, and recent research has also linked them to behavioral problems in children. For example, a 2010 study published in the journal Pediatrics found an association between exposure to high levels of these pesticides and ADHD symptoms in children. These results are not surprising, because organophosphate pesticides are potent neurotoxic chemicals designed to kill insects by interfering with their nervous systems.

You can avoid pesticides by purchasing organically grown fruits and vegetables in your supermarket’s organic produce section, as well as by looking for organic frozen vegetables and foods made with organic ingredients.

Making these simple changes in your family’s diet not only makes good sense health-wise, but you may also notice a marked improvement in your children’s behavior and concentration.

Jane Hersey is National Director of the nonprofit Feingold Association and author of “Why Can’t My Child Behave?” A former teacher and Head Start consultant, she has testified before the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Congress about ADHD and diet. She frequently lectures at education associations, hospitals, medical groups, universities, and schools.


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“Modernising the rules on food additives and labeling of azo dyes,” European Parliament, July 8, 2008.

“Ministry Bid to Take the Color Out of Sweet Treats,” Shanghai Daily, April 9, 2012.

Federal Register, Vol. 75, No. 230, December 1, 2010.

“F.D.A. Panel to Consider Warnings for Artificial Food Colorings,” New York Times, March 29, 2011.

Sinn, N. and Bryan, J. Effect of Supplementation with Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Micronutrients on Learning and Behavior Problems Associated with Child ADHD. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. April 2007: Vol. 28, Issue 2: 82-91.

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Individual dietary needs vary and no one diet will meet everyone’s daily requirements. Before starting any new diet, check with your doctor or nutritionist.

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only, and its author is not engaged in providing medical or psychological services or advice to individuals. This information should not be used to replace competent in-person medical, health, or psychological consultation, examination, diagnosis, or treatment, and no person should delay in seeking medical, health, or psychological treatment in reliance on it. Although care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of this information, the author is not responsible for its validity or the consequence of its use.