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

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?

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 for food and behavior post

The Experiment. On Video.

UPDATE 5/16:

After the initial publication of this post, the videos of the experiment were removed from The Food Hospital's website.

Thanks to a very helpful reader, we now have much of the series back to watch.

The segments start at the beginning of this video.  Though they are not there in their entirety, much of it is still there so you can see quite a bit of what ensued.

Enjoy and be amazed.

You will see the results of the experiment--how the kids behave and learn after eating their meals.

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

See how the coordinators divided up the groups, what they ate, and how things started to play out. This is very interesting!

(Please note - the videos have mostly been removed from the internet. Here is what remains.)

 

**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.)

{From Adrienne.  I have REALLY noticed the relationship between food and behavior in our home. We've removed colors, preservatives, and then gluten, and sugar and have seen a lot of things improve as a result.  Let's for sure do what we can to get the word out about this.  So many meds and doctors visits and frustrating scenarios could be avoided if we try to feed our kids (and ourselves) well.}

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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417 Comments

  1. I agree with this. Actually my son has a vitamin b difficiency which his father also has, and he is night and day when he doesn't have it. That being said our ancestors did not eat what we do and even my parents are differently than what is available now. And if food has nothing to do with it tell me how they are healthier than we are now?!?!

    1. Exactly. I just heard that the life expectancy is dropping for the first time. The toxins are getting to us. I wonder what you take and are you concerned about folic acid? Have you looked at the MTHFR mutation?

  2. This is a great study! Within the past two years my sweet little 2 year old son all of the sudden turned into a little terror. He was just plain old mean. He would hit, yell, scratch, bang toys off the wall, pee on my carpet purposely, have insane tantrums, I could go on. No discipline tactics would work. I didn't know what happened because he was so quiet and calm normally. My husband and I were going nuts and I was just so upset I couldn't take it anymore. So my mom asked me to take away red 40 for a week and see what happened. (Luckily my niece has the same issues, but with her the MD diagnosed her with ADHD and my brother refused to give her the medicine. Come to find out, it was the red 40 food dye.) ...So after the week with my son and no red 40, I was noticing quite a difference. I am so glad we were able to figure it out so quickly. Now to this day, he is almost 4, I can tell when he has red 40. He does pretty good but being so young he still tries to sneak a red m&m here and there. I cannot believe his behavior from the red dye. Actually our pediatrician and the pharmacists don't seem to either and look at me like I'm crazy. What drives me crazy is how hard it is to get an antibiotic without the red dye for the flavoring. I'm also not sure why so many things even need the red dye that aren't even red!

  3. I have removed red Dye from my youngest sons diet. When he was maybe 2 years old he got sick and his Dr wrote a prescription for a medicine that had red dye. After taking this he became very aggressive He started eating toddler snack with this dye as well. He started biting people including himself. He would cry a lot and just over all seemed agitated. He would not make eye contact with me he was unable to sleep at night because he was extremely hyper. I couldn't understand what was going on with my baby. He was so unhappy it broke my heart. After about a year of this behavior I took him to his Dr. They thought he might be autistic. They wanted to do some testing or put him on medication. I would not do this. I knew something had changed and that he was not born this way. So one of my sisters over heard a lady talking about her son and his issues with red dye.It all sounded to much like my son so I decided to remove all red dye from his diet and see what would happen. After about a week or two I could see an huge change. My son is now 10 and he does great in school and does really well when he is offered candy or food at school or a friends house that has red dye. Anyone out there having similar issues it is worth a shot to remove artificial dyes. It has been a life changer for us.

  4. I am so glad to see people talking about this.

    When my daughter was young, there was a young boy who was sent to a special school for ADHD. They could not handle him in a real school setting. The cool thing about the school was they focused on the causes - dyes, pop, sugar... In less than a year, he was completely changed.

    While we ate mostly meat and vegetables for dinner, after this I removed pop and cut down on the sugars significantly. I also started making more things from scratch to remove chemicals from our diet.

    I never really had behavior problems with my daughter, but I sure witnessed plenty who did.

  5. I try so hard to feed my daughter real food--the biggest challenge is lunch. She won't touch sliced fruit unless it's *just* been sliced, so I can't pre slice anything. She won't eat it whole (like apples, etc.) She never touches raw veggies. She's 8, and we're making progress, little by little. I have come to accept that I cannot have it the way I'd like it with her right now but in time we'll get there. All that to say, there's definitely a difference in her behavior with increased amounts of sugar! And I"m all too aware that it's in things like barbecue sauce and other secret places. It pains me, but I feel like if she's getting the protein then some of the sauce for now is ok. We're working on it, and I"m always introducing new Paleo dishes. She's trying them at least.

  6. Hi, I'm from the UK and have two sons with a genetic disability called fragile X syndrome, before the younger son was born my elder son was diagnosed as having autism and ADHD, this was just over 20 years ago. At the time the Paediatrician we saw was an autism specialist who was doing (at the time) ground breaking research into diet and leaky gut in children with autism and ADHD. Whereas the other doctors at the hospital were using the blanket treatment of sticking children on Ritalin ours was trailing dietary intervention which started off as a complete exclusion diet (casein free, gluten free and anti-fungal- no sugars (including natural fruits sugars) or yeasts).

    We went cold turkey with my son, he was a marmite on toast and milk lover but we cut it out completely, he went almost three days without eating but when the hunger took over he ate what he was given. This was a child who screamed for at least 18 out of every 24 hours, he trashed every room he entered clearing surfaces in seconds, he had 13+ sour and foul loose nappies a day and was basically killing me.

    Along with the diet we gave him an anti-fungal medicine (fluconazole) which killed off any fungus/yeasts in the gut from carbohydrate sugars. We were told to expect symptoms to worsen before they got better, if indeed they did, and that it could take up to 3 months to see any kind of change.
    Well, within 1 month I had a completely different child, we went from the 13+ dirty nappies to 2 or 3 that were nearer normal, the screaming was reduced to almost nothing and the trashing was gone! His attention was still no more than half a minute on any particular thing but I managed to sleep.

    After 6 months out Dr asked us to reintroduce one element back into his diet, gluten, we did this in very small amounts over the course of a week and by the end of the week we had bowel issues so we cut it again. 6 months later we did the same with casein, then 6 months later added back yeasts/sugars. Non of the reintroductions were successful so we went back to the full exclusion.
    What we found from reintroducing the food groups was that:
    Gluten affected his bowels
    Casein/dairy affected both bowels and behaviour
    Anti-fungal affected bowels but also behaviour in the most drastic way imaginable! To the extent that a couple of raisins would see him turn into a demon who was completely out of control.
    When my younger son arrived and started to show the same delays and behaviours our Dr suggested testing for genetic causes and we were given the FXS diagnosis along with the dual diagnosis of autism. Our Dr said that had he known they had FXS he would not have considered the exclusion diet approach as he didn't think it would have been effective. Thankfully for us he did and it was.

    Over the years throughout their school life (both went to the same special ed school from 4 right through to adulthood) we have tried reintroducing food groups with our Dr advising not to tell school so that we get a better idea of any changes. Needless to say we had no end of letters from school asking what had happened at home, ha ha, one letter from my younger sons teacher even said he was "completely demented all day and totally uncontrollable" that day saw him put his head through a plate glass window!

    Soooooo, the bottom line is, food has a huge effect on our children, yeasts and sugars in particular play a massive role in behaviour and are the ingredients that are the most hard to spot. Especially as almost all flavourings are either fermented (msg) or contain autolised yeast, the yeast does not have to be mentioned in the ingredients list as it is just an ingredient in the flavouring! Any crisps (chips) or snacks that are flavoured in any way contain this and will usually have an effect within about 20 minutes if a large portion is consumed.
    Sorry for the long post but this should be something that all parents know and any behaviour problems should be dealt with by dietary means first before kids are given meds. The food industry is poisoning children the world over and making a fortune doing it.?
    My sons are both in their early 20s and continue to be on their strict diet. Obviously we have many other issues relating to their FXS but the diet has made a huge difference to their lives . . . . And ours!

  7. I totally agree that food influences behavior - adults, too! But this seems to say that ADHD, Autism, etc behavioral disorders are caused by food. What about the child who eat a completely natural, allergen free diet who still displays outrageous, unsocial, violent, and delayed behavior? Isn't it just the way some kids are?

  8. I think it would have been interesting had you done the test twice, with the same children - but switched the kids in each group so it is reversed. The blue group eat what the yellow ate and visa versa

  9. Hi,
    Could you send me the source of the study? Who exactly did it? Was it published? I've looked around but cant seem to find it... sorry if you did post it and I'm missing it.
    Thanks,

    1. I realize it was the TV show but was it in anyway accredited by science?
      love that this is becoming a conversation...

  10. I give my child junk food and he acts horribly a lot of times and I know that I know that I know MOST of it is his diet...kids definitely do have different personalities but I think this experiment and the results are legit...anyone who doesn't think its about the food, I'm wondering why? Is it like a feeling guilty because you aren't ready to change your eating habits? It's hard I know but I'm going to try slowly...not feel guilt and shame but use this as a positive thing! If you don't believe it, try a test at home!

  11. thank you for this information- I just wanted to comment that although I believe that what you feed your child does make a difference in their behaviour, I also think that kids are programmed a certain way from the beginning and that parenting also plays a big part in shaping childrens behaviour. I feed my children limited sugar, very little, if any, colour inane sodium benzoate and I think that my kids must be the ones in the % that still act up- maybe that says something about my parenting skills:( but I do believe there are other factors that contribute to the behaviour as well as what they eat.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Of course there are many factors in parenting but there are other things besides sugar and color that can affect kids...like gluten, high glycemic fruits, etc. My son doesn't do well on a lot of carbs and my other one on high glycemic fruits. Do your kids eat a lot of carbs / things like bananas, etc.?

      1. Hi! Aware this is an old article, but I read it with interest when it came up on my newsfeed and just wanted to write a quick comment. I have a career in nutrition and dietetics, and feed my kids a very healthy diet, we don't keep any junk food in the house and treats are minimal. My son's 3.5 and for the past 10 months his behaviour has got progressively worse, to the point where I could no longer use toddler tantrums as an excuse and realised my parenting couldn't be THAT bad. He was having meltdowns, highs and lows for the majority of his waking day, and aside from anything else, I felt so sorry for HIM and what it must feel like for HIM. 2 months ago I closely examined his healthy diet and stumbled across the link between 'salicylates' and behaviour - a chemical naturally occurring in many fruits and veg (look up Feingold diet if you'd like more info). I realised part of my son's healthy diet was actually the cause of his poor behaviour. I cut out completely 2 of the worst culprits, tomatoes and apples and all foods containing tomatoes and apples - both very high salicylate foods. The results have been dramatic - he's a completely different boy. The relationship between diet and behaviour is clearly complex and very individual.

        1. Thanks for sharing that. I have looked at salicylates too, mainly for a friend, but also for my kids. Glad it's worked so well for you and yes, it is closely related.

  12. Doesn't this study seem like more of a case for Captain Obvious? You load kids up with sugar and junk food and they act out. Garbage in, garbage out.

  13. I'm wanting to know once a child eats food with the dyes in it how much time (approx.) does it take for the behavior changes? Could it be 12-24 hour reaction time?

  14. Adrienne, I would like to thank you first and foremost for the time intensive research. I'm imagining you, like many of us have had to find these changes out on your own because of behavioral issues that mainstream medicine would be alarmingly willing to offer medication for.
    Even though our eldest has a broader palate, the younger two are prone to reach for the junk that grammy brings with her. I read about the essential oils usage in another post of yours and I wonder-are there eo's that can help with the sugary cravings? Obviously, trashing the junk is exactly what I need to do, but come a certain week of the month & I'M the one bringing the junk into house! (meno)PAUSing for a response... 🙂

    1. Hi and thanks for commenting. Here is the response from the oils company about cravings:

      Cinnamon Bark and Ginger Root helps curve cravings. Ginger Root settles the stomach and pH. Cinnamon Bark should specifically help with sugar cravings.

      Also, our Slim and Trim product is designed to curb cravings.

      I do think personally that getting the stuff out of the home and out of your diet is the way to go, of course. Have you tried some of the sugar alternatives in my recipes? On another related note, when I cut out caffeine I found PMS issues were decreased.
      I hope this all helps!!

  15. There may be something to your study but it obviously is not double blinded and therefore introduces huge bias in everyone's expectations and "observations" of behavior. I think you should continue to study this topic but hire a scientific researcher to help you design and analyze your data in a more objective and reproducible way. It's more work but worth it for the credibility of your results.

  16. I bet the children in the health foods group would have done even better if they had not been made to eat sandwiches along with the healthy foods. The ingredients list in the average loaf of bread is very long and very scary.

  17. I can not tell you how much food affects humans! My son was diagnosed with ADHD and we put him (and our daughter) on the Feingold Diet. It was like day and night with our son. He had more control of his body and mind. When I would adhere to the diet, I didn't think I felt any different. That is, until I went OFF the diet. Then I would feel the difference, especially with headaches, which I never used to get. 2 1/2 years after we started the diet with our children, my son now has NO signs of hyperactivity. He sometimes still has a hard time focusing, but it's usually with tough school subjects, which is hard to blame him for. This article/video is great information for people. Thank you!

  18. Hi Adrienne! I read your articles on Essential Oils and really appreciated all the information that you provided. I became a user of essential oils about eight months ago and have had many life changing health benefits happen for myself, my family and friends. I found this article about how what we feed our children affect their behavior while searching for a vitamin supplement for my 4 1/2 year old son. We eat fairly healthy and avoid food coloring and extra sugar at all costs when it comes to my son but there are still some issues that he struggles with. I had started him on YL's Kids multi vitamins and could see a difference in his overall attitude and behavior within a few weeks, however, they have been out of stock for weeks with no date yet for them to be back in stock. I was wondering if there was another vitamin that you could recommend that would be comparable to that. Most vitamins that you purchase at the stores have artificial sweeteners and food coloring. I live in an area where going to a whole foods market or health food store takes about two hours. Thank you for your help!!

    1. Hi there. Thanks so much. Are you specifically looking for a multi? Do you think he isn't getting good nutrition? This is one that I have heard good things about. https://amzn.to/1ALVm7j (affiliate link) Does that help or sound like what you are looking for?

  19. I saw a reports several years ago, about a school in New York. It was a school fro children who were already "problem kids" (I'm sorry i cannot remember specifics). They had a special program where the students were at the school for like 12 10 hours a day and they provided breakfast, lunch, and dinner to the children (I believe part of this was due to most students being low income and weren't being fed at home consistently, but again I can't remember specifics). What I do remember is that they switched all of the students to a healthier diet low in sugar and high in protein and vegetables. They found that there was a much lower incidence of behavior problems and the students also did better in their classes!

    I have been a substitute teacher for many years and I can always tell which students have had a lunch filled with things like purple fruit drink and cheetos, and which ones have had apple juice and carrot sticks. And I feel too much sugar isn't great, but processed foods are worse. Maybe the food colorings and preservatives?

    1. Wow- that's amazing. Or maybe not so. Makes sense that you feed them good food and they should feel better, right? 🙂 I think it's all of it. Higher carbs, more sugar, coloring, preservatives, and additives. All of it. Thanks again!

    2. There are two schools that had major studies and showed that providing better food made a huge difference in behavior (Appleton, Wisconsin) and test scores (New York City). You can find details on both via the Feingold Association's web site - http://www.feingold.org