Think Food Doesn’t Affect Behavior? You’ve Got to Read This.

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Are food and behavior connected? Some say that’s nonsense, that food has nothing to do with behavior.

Others say that there is a clear connection. What does the evidence show?

angry boy for post about food and behavior

Food and behavior is a big topic these days.  Folks are talking about gluten-free diets, paleo diets, candida diets, and more.

Does it all matter?  Does food affect things like autism, ADD, ADHD and just plain old defiance?

So many behavioral issues can be traced to gut health. We need to all inform and empower parents to make a difference in their children’s (and their own) lives.}

It’s common to joke about kids being on a sugar high after a party, so all of us know, on some level, that food influences how kids behave.

But how many of us realize the extent to which our children’s day-to-day actions are shaped and molded by the foods we feed them?

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Food and Behavior

An experiment on the effects of food on behavior done by the British TV series, The Food Hospital, produced shocking results. Party food loaded with sugar, artificial coloring, and other additives have the power to turn your lovely, cooperative child into a badly behaved, physically aggressive youngster.

Before we get to the study, let’s talk about some of the WORST things that you (and your kids) can eat.

Three Food Ingredients that Might Affect Behavior Negatively

1. Artificial Coloring

There’s evidence both for and against artificial food coloring causing behavioral issues in children.

More and more evidence is pointing to artificial food dyes as a major cause of ADHD in children. While this hasn’t been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, the facts are strong enough to convince many European countries to ban blue 1 (brilliant blue), blue 2 (indigo carmine), yellow 5 (tartrazine), and yellow 6 (sunset yellow) among others.

These food colors have FDA approval and are found in cereal, candy, and a variety of colorful foods popular with children.

2. Sugar

There is a shocking amount of sugar in processed foods – and some of it is lurking in places you wouldn’t suspect. One 12 oz. can of coke has 9 ½ teaspoons of sugar. The same amount of Tropicana Farmstand Juice has 9 teaspoons. There’s also lots of sugar in flavored yogurts and chocolate milk – not so surprising. But did you know that there is often sugar in savory foods, such as ketchup, bread, sausages, and barbeque sauce? Your child can consume a considerable amount of sugar even before you let him or her eat candy, and high sugar levels contribute to hyperactivity.

3. Sodium benzoate

Sodium benzoate is a preservative found in carbonated beverages and fruit juices, condiments, candies and many other products. It has been implicated either separately or together with artificial colorings for causing or aggravating ADHD symptoms, and is best avoided.

It has also been noted that sodium benzoate reacts with citric acid to make benzene. So be very very careful with any foods or personal care products that have both ingredients together!

Read labels.

A real-food, nutrient-dense paleo diet – which excludes these three substances as well as anything likely to affect behavior – seems to be the best way to ensure your kids get the right nutrition.

How Does This Affect Your Family

You may think that these problems don’t affect you since your child doesn’t suffer from serious behavioral problems or learning disabilities. Remember, the children in the video were just a regular group of school kids–not children selected because they didn’t behave well. The impact on them was profound, so clearly, this is a concern for every parent.

Let’s do all we can to set our kids up for success.

The Food and Behavior Experiment

Children in Britain aged 5 – 9 attended a party.

They were split into two groups:

Group One: was fed healthy options such as apple slices, carrot sticks, sandwiches, hummus, etc. and was given water to drink.

Group Two: received the usual party fair: candy, potato chips, and soda (or as they say in the UK, sweets, crisps, and fizzy pop), all containing loads of sugar, artificial coloring, and other additives.

The children’s ability to follow instructions, concentrate and remember information was then measured as they played party games, and their actions were carefully recorded.

You may be surprised by what they found.

The results are shown in this simple chart:

Food Behavior Table

It wasn’t only how they behaved that was remarkably different.

The healthy food group did “48% better in the games overall” – that’s a huge improvement in performance.

Now, of course, there are a lot of factors associated with the foods served at this party, but it’s an interesting experiment nonetheless.

And I’m sure you have noticed that you feel better after eating healthier food–so it only makes sense that your kids would as well.

And when you feel better, you act better.

Are We Setting Our Kids (and Ourselves) Up for Failure?

After watching the segments that you can see below, I couldn’t help think that many kids are inadvertently being set up for failure by their own parents. Moms and Dads certainly intend to do the best for their children, and part of this can mean feeding them “regular food” that won’t set their children apart from their friends.

But in doing so, our children are being sabotaged in ways that make it difficult for them to perform school tasks successfully.

They’re fed processed foods that can make them aggressive and difficult to control. Then, as if that weren’t bad enough, they’re penalized for their inability to learn and their out-of-control behavior.

We all know that a child who is constantly hitting other children, having tantrums, and running around wildly is a child who is continually reprimanded. We also all know a child who doesn’t follow teachers’ instructions, can’t remember what he or she was taught yesterday, or can’t concentrate long enough to finish a task receives poor grades and negative feedback.

No parent wants this for his or her child.

Tragically, in the worst cases, kids who are simply reacting to what they are being fed end up taking unnecessary prescription drugs or are sent to special schools.

Helping Kids Succeed with Good Nutrition

How do we feed children to prepare them to succeed in school and get along in society? Generally speaking, the more natural a food is, the less likely it is to cause a severe behavioral reaction. Keep in mind that there are plenty of individual differences in how children react to specific foods and additives.

One family might discover that avoiding a certain additive transforms their child into a little angel, while in another family cutting out wheat may do wonders.

That said, watch out in particular for the Three Substances I list below, which are often linked with behavioral problems.

Watch the following video to see what happened to these two groups of kids — and be thinking about how we might be setting our kids up for either failure or success, based on what we are feeding them.

angry child with title saying does food affect behavior?

The Experiment on Video

After the initial publication of this post, the videos of the experiment were removed from The Food Hospital’s website. Following is what is now available.

Watch as parents and a psychologist evaluate behavior during play and learning tasks.

The coordinators divided up the groups, what they ate, and how things started to play out.

Full Experiment

I can’t embed this video here but you can go to this link and watch it.

It’s split up into parts. The time stamps for the experiment are:

From 9:22 – 13:27 and

from 25:28 – 31:55.

Here’s a small part of the experiment as well.

**Note:  The woman, when stating that they “don’t know” what made the difference, mentions “E numbers.” From Wikipedia, this is what she is referring to: “E numbers are codes for chemicals which can be used as food additives for use within the European Union and Switzerland (the “E” stands for “Europe”).They are commonly found on food labels throughout the European Union. Safety assessment and approval are the responsibility of the European Food Safety Authority”

Study Conclusion

Those who ran the study say that they don’t know what it is in the party food that affects the children. Is it the sugar? The artificial coloring? Maybe the lack of essential nutrients? It’s not clear.

I suspect it’s a combination, with individual children being more affected by different things.

What is clear is that children not only behave better but concentrate better, follow instructions better, and remember more when they eat healthier food.

Let’s not forget that concentration, following instructions, and memory are fundamental building blocks of the learning process and vital for success at school.

(UPDATE:  Think the evidence isn’t compelling enough?

Check out the follow up post to this one at Response to Doubters–STILL Think Food Doesn’t Affect Behavior?  Read This.)

Have you noticed (or suspected) foods affect behavior in your house?
What has YOUR experience been?

Ruth Almon of Paleo Diet Basics

Ruth is a big fan of the paleo diet, having regained her health after decades of living with chronic fatigue syndrome.

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  1. Teachers know that food makes a difference in behavior! What’s our least favorite day of the school year? Day after Halloween!

  2. I wish our FDA was much more careful about what it allows in our foods. I remember the snack in a Sunday school toddler class was cinnamon graham crackers…seems innocent enough, but one little boy was clearly affected from one second to the next…I’ve never seen such a clear case of food affecting behavior!
    If you look at the keto diet (and I know a lot of people dismiss it out of hand because it sounds outlandish as our thinking is impacted by our present “food triangle”)…the keto diet has been used on epileptic and autistic patients with stunning results, also for Alzheimer’s and a variety of other issues. I used it to lose weight and when I went off, and started using grains again, I realized how much they cause exhaustion and pain for me; I do so much better avoiding them. Our foods are so laden with chemicals and unknowns that are hard to avoid, such a shame that eating right is so challenging!

    1. Hi again, Connie! It’s a hard thing for sure. And what do we want the FDA to do–ban all purpose flour? I don’t know but I know that eating a lot of it (and sometimes just a little) causes a ton of issues for many people and sugar is worse it seems. I’m glad you found good results. I’m not a fan of keto long term but it’s a great diet for a lot of people in a lot of situations. Of course many don’t do well with a bunch of dairy either so there’s that……I personally aim for whole foods, lower carb and as many veggies as I can (some days I do better than others

      1. This is truly a hard thing for those affected and their parents, some more than others. I have seen first hand the change-over (I should say take-over) of a young body and mind affected after eating the wrong thing. It was like night and day. Luckily this young child was able to grow out of it’s worst effects as well as learning to deal better as they aged. Time, conscious effort and love.

      1. Ooh you are the BEST! I’m assuming I can’t copy this but I will get a link in the post for sure.

        I took notes on the time blocks for the party food test but the whole video is great!

        THANK YOU!

  3. There must surely be truth in this if the original video’s were removed. Makes you think, doesn’t it …

  4. Adrienne, I can’t find the party video on this new post (7/14), just the results video. Where can I see that video? I’d like to be able to share both. Thanks!

    1. I know it’s such a shame that the videos are gone. I searched for hours. Not sure why they were deleted. I did the best I could to put the post together as it was. Thanks for reading!

  5. Yes yes yes a million percent!!! I started my family healthy snack box business for this reason but it’s so hard when people don’t really see the link still. Sharing this to my Facebook page and pinning to all relevant boards now!

    1. Hey there. Neat that you started that! I just hopped over to your page, however, and didn’t see the post shared. Did I miss it? Thanks. I really hope you weren’t just saying that to get your page and business promoted. 🙂

      1. It’s in Buffer scheduled to post tomorrow but sad you think so poorly of people.. my customers are UK only so would be very unlikely I’d get business from promoting in a comment to this post, I just like to engage and collaborate with people I share a passion.. it usually goes well!

        1. I’m sorry that I made that assumption. I can’t tell you how many people I have had putting their group pages and company names and links here, using fake names and all sorts of stuff. My sincere apologies! I had to delete several inserts into comments just today.

          Your snacks look lovely and I wish I could try them! My father is from Ireland and so much of the fun of experiencing another culture is trying fun foods there–of course there are a lot of similarities in the snack foods, but your selection still looks like a lot of fun. When did you start your business?

        2. Hi again, Sally. I did think that I should point out that I asked you if I missed it and said that I hoped you weren’t doing that. So I really wasn’t making the assumption and was trying to assume the best :). Turns out, in this case, my assumption about the best was right.

  6. I personally haven’t noticed food colouring to affect my boys. However when they eat wheat they get very hyper and do not listen very well. I have been learning how much food really affects us. Thank you for this study.

    1. You are so welcome. I just wish I had the whole video still to share….shame it’s off the internet! Thanks for reading!