Much research has been done into the impact of diet on kids' behavior, especially the role of artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners that are used to make food look and taste more appealing. Fast food, as well as packaged treats (including chips, cookies, cakes and sodas), are particularly high in these additives as food loses palatability when it is processed.
According to NutritionFacts.org (2014), the consumption of processed foods in the US has increased five-fold in the last 50 years. With over 15 million pounds of artificial dyes being used in food, drugs, and cosmetics every year, Americans are now consuming more additives than ever before.
Does Diet Affect Behavior?
The food industry often maintains that, since additives are derived from "natural" sources, they are safe for consumption. However, a double-blind placebo-controlled study done in Great Britain shows otherwise. This study demonstrated a correlation between artificial colors and increased "inattentiveness, impulsivity and hyperactivity" in kids (Greger, 2014).
Other studies showed these effects to be dose-dependent (Feingold Association of the United States, n.d.), so the more additives kids consume, the worse their symptoms become. In his 1974 book, Why Your Child Is Hyperactive, Dr. Benjamin Feingold detailed his findings relating to additives and their effects on cognitive function.
Feingold began his research focusing on one group of compounds called salicylates but eventually developed a diet plan that eliminates all artificial additives, including those found in medications and personal care products. This diet is now known as the Feingold diet.
Excitotoxins: Over-stimulating the Young Brain
Substances such as glutamate, aspartate and hydrolyzed vegetable protein are ubiquitous in today's food supply, often used as taste enhancers in packaged foods that children enjoy as snacks. While our brains need glutamate and aspartate for functions such as concentration, motor skills, and memory, high concentrations can have detrimental effects.
Known as excitotoxins, these substances can literally excite brain cells to death. When excitotoxins are ingested, they affect the brain by forcing calcium channels in neurons to stay open, flooding the cells with calcium and starting an excitatory cascade that results in the depletion of cellular energy, generation of damaging free radicals and a drain on the body's antioxidant supply (Excitotoxins and brain health, 2008), usually resulting in cell death.
Cells that survive this process may still sustain damage (Solan, 2003). Children are especially susceptible to these effects due to the fact that the protective blood-brain barrier isn't fully developed and is therefore less equipped to deal with foreign substances. Food additives containing excitotoxins are listed under many names. Some common sources include (Blaylock, 1997):
- Autolyzed yeast
- Bullion, broth and stock
- Flavoring, including natural flavors
- Malt extract
- Sodium and calcium caseinate
- Soy and whey protein concentrates
- Soy protein isolate
- Textured protein
- Yeast extract
Back-to-School Nutritional Considerations
When kids consume diets high in additive-laden junk foods, they are not only exposed to potentially toxic compounds but also miss out on key nutrients that work to protect their developing brains and ensure optimal mental function (Lyon, 2000):
- Clean proteins provide the amino acid "building blocks" for brain chemicals and help kids to focus by keeping blood sugar levels in healthy ranges.
- Essential fats including DHA, and omega-3, and GLA, and omega-6, help maintain the cell membrane fluidity necessary for nerve impulses to travel quickly in the brain.
- Iron is needed to make hemoglobin, the compound in the blood responsible for bringing oxygen to all body tissues including the brain. Low oxygen in the brain can interfere with mental function, causing both cognitive and behavioral problems.
- Magnesium and zinc are both needed to make DHA and GLA from their precursors, ALA and LA. Kids who are low in zinc may also experience problems with taste, leading to cravings for the concentrated flavors found in processed foods.
Shifting to whole, plant-based foods (such as vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes) provides the right balance of these and other nutrients essential for brain health in childhood. In addition, plant foods provide a range of beneficial phytonutrients that work together to promote overall well-being, so kids can lead vibrant lives as they grow.
Starting healthy habits now will help to ensure that your child can focus in school and enjoy optimal health all year long. Begin the day with a hearty breakfast such as a bowl of oatmeal sprinkled with nuts and topped with fresh fruit. Keep the momentum going by packing your child's lunch box with natural nut or seed butters on whole grain bread, or mix things up with unusual offerings such as rice pilaf or bean chili. Whole grain crackers and cut veggies with oil-free hummus make satisfying snacks. Replacing packaged and processed foods with health-promoting options eliminates potentially aggravating artificial ingredients and provides your kids with the nutrients they need to succeed in school and grow up healthy. When you show your kids that eating healthy can be delicious, they'll be more likely to make nutritious food choices in the future.
- Bauman, E. (2012). NC105.3 Fats and oils. Retrieved from Bauman College
- Blaylock, R. (1997). Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills. Albuquerque, NM: Health Press NA Inc
- Feingold, B. (1974). Why Your Child is Hyperactive. New York, NY: Random House
- Lyon, M. (2000). Healing the Hyperactive Brain Through the New Science of Functional Medicine. Calgary, AB: Focused Publishing
- Murray, M., Pizzorno, J., Pizzorno, L. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York: Simon and Schuster
- Solan, M. (2003). Excitotoxins.
Theresa "Sam" Houghton is a freelance writer and foodie who believes in the power of a whole-foods, plant-based, oil-free diet for lifelong health. She holds a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from eCornell and the T. Colin Campbell Foundation and is currently enrolled in the Nutrition Consultant Distance Learning program through Bauman College. Sam blogs about food, recipes and health over at QuantumVegan.com.
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.