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. Thanks for posting about this! Just personally, when I worked in an office where somebody brought in donuts 2-3 times a month, I noticed that eating even a single donut created a blood sugar spike and crash so dramatic in me that I became aggressive and irritable. People used to look at me like I was crazy when the words “no thanks, donuts make me cranky,” would come out but it is so, so true.

  2. I believe there is a direct correlation in the food we eat and our behavior. My now 10 year old son is on a strict no red dye diet. When he was in preschool and kindergarten he was excused from school due to uncontrollable angry outbursts. He at the time was also having issues with his bowels being blocked. After removing all gluten, dairy, sugar and dyes from his diet he behaved much better. We then began reintroducing each one back into his diet one at a time. We figured out he was dairy sensitive and gluten sensitive which was causing his bowel issues. But we also figured out by trials of various products with red dye and yellow dye that it affected his behaviour literally within seemingly seconds. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde like changes. My one minute happy child would turn into the Incredible Hulk. To this day he still does not do well with red dye. Yellow does not seem to affect him as much aggressively. Though we still limit it because it does seem to make him more hyperactive. He seems to take it all in stride understanding it’s just better for him to not have certain foods in his diet for his health and well being. Although it is pretty tough when you’re the only kid who can’t have Skittles and m-n-ms in the class. I have found many good alternative products out there to buy that are dye free and tasty too. We also hold him accountable for his behaviour if he decides to cheat and have something with the dyes and becomes angry or hyperactive. I believe too often parents over compensate by allowing the excuse of their child being intollerent to the dye and thus not disciplining or giving the child consequences for the behavior. Our children still need to be taught that aggressive angry behaviour is still very much unacceptable behaviour.

    1. Good for you for digging for the root cause and for being vigilant with your child. We need to share with the world that this “non food” is poison!

    2. Thank you very much for sharing this info and providing the video. It provides compelling reason to rethink our children’s diet and not give in to convenience.

  3. Hi, I’m loving the fact that I am seeing more and more people advocating the importance of dietary input and its direct correlation to behavioural output. To add some food for thought, my oldest son has a salicylate sensitivity, which makes him unable to eat a lot of natural foods due to them naturally having high levels. This sensitivity basically causes preservitaves, additives, colouring etc to imitate the same reaction as things like apples, berries etc. The way he reacts is very similar to ADHD and I have fought for him nearly his entire life to get people to understand his dietary needs. I have only just started to realise how deep the rabbit hole is for him and have even started making home made bread for him because even a loaf of bread was becoming too much. You can’t allergy test for this sensitivity as it is too cumilitive in too many different foods, so I believe that there is many people out there being medicated for something that may actually just be a food intolerance. Does this sound like something you would be interested in researching further and doing an article on? (If you haven’t already). I’ve only just been able to find blogs and websites that are informative, but I know what I am looking for. I feel for the people out there that struggle with and for their loved ones that could be helped by this information. Kind regards, Andrea

    1. Hi Andrea – thanks for commenting. I have heard about this–with reactions varying by person. Not sure I’m ready to tackle it as a topic right now but perhaps down the road. So sorry that I didn’t respond sooner–I lost comments off the blog for awhile and just recently got them back. Thanks again for reading!

  4. Thank you posting this. My goal is to educate parents about diet as part of a holistic solution to behavior, learning and motor skill challenges. I also teach them how to integrate primitive reflexes. So intentional movement to create new neural commendations and mature the brain in combination with diet are very powerful. I’m going to link this page on my website because the party experiment and puts it in real terms for parents. Keep up the good work! One family and one child at a time!

  5. I am raising 7 year old twins a boy and girl.

    the little girl has ADHD/Learning challenge

    her brother has Autism/ADHD/Sensory Integration Dysfunction, Speech & Language Delays/he barely sleeps /picky eater

    I have been reading these post. How to I create a diet of healthy food and vitamins.

    I am currently utilizing ABA/ Speech and behavior counseling. I honestly do not see a great deal of change. At this point I am desperate.

    I even took him to a herbalist, she told me he needs to become one with nature and run bare feet and hug a tree. Then she gave me oils to rub on his feet. Honestly I left bewildered.

    I just need a guide to follow I have heard that a change in diet has been shown to make a great difference in children with special needs. if anyone would like to contact me with info. my email is

    1. Hello there. Diet is huge w/these kids. The most popular thing to do is remove gluten and dairy but for our child, removing sugar and high carb / refined foods was the biggest thing and then after that was gluten and then the oil that I mention in this post.

      I am sorry you have had a tough time. Happy to help as much as I can. This isn’t medical advice. Hope this is of some encouragement to you.

  6. What national efforts are being made to push this mainstream, aside from informative blogs and youtube channels? I personally would like to see someone do a documentary on this, not JUST highlighting the physical complications children and adults have, but also, the mental impact is has. I KNOW kids are being affected by the foods they eat, and I even tried to suggest one student I worked with in a day treatment facility to get a food allergy test done. The results were less than adequate. Nothing was done. He had was placed on some medication for his intestinal bleeding, and as far as I know it never went further. The majority of the staff approached with me caution as though my suggestion was a threat. Good people mind you- I simply wish they would replace their psychiatrist with a nutritionist, or someone who specializes in making those food and behavioral connections. I watched my own daughter recover and blossom before my eyes after discovering she was celiacs. I want this to become mainstream.

    1. There is a compelling documentary on Netflix called the Magic Pill that does expose these issues. It directly correlates the effects of our diet with child behavior issues, autism severity, chronic illnesses like diabetes and even cancer. Changed my life, in a good way.

  7. Good information. I have. child with ADHD and just searching on how much diet plays into this.

    For what its worth, I do find it kind weird that advertisements for Heinz BBQ sauce shows up in the middle of your page and at the bottom.

    1. Thanks! I’m sorry about the ads. I have tried to find a resource for only healthy living ads but it’s hard. The costs of running my blog are huge and so it’s always a balance between perfection and making it work. I hope you can understand! But yes, the irony :).

  8. I’m a pharmacist. They didn’t teach us diet/nutrition in school.
    Sugar turned my son into the Joker. Red dye turned him into the Incredible Hulk. His Autistic & ADHD tendencies (which he developed at age 2 and were not relieved by medication or behavior therapy) have significantly improved since going on an antifungal regimen and are improving even more after switching his supplements.

    1. So glad to hear he is doing better. It’s a huge problem. My kids just ate loads of junk this past week b/c we had a drama at church….they both got sick. Badly. I suspect we won’t be doing that again. The youngest even asked if we could bring our own food next time. 🙂

  9. When my daughter was 9 years old she was diagnosed with adhd. It was very difficult. Many doctors, psychiatrists and a counselor. The counseling was beneficial bUT let me explain why. We had our first visit and she was interupting, not sitting still and barely able to look the counselor in the eye. He took notes. Also she was not on any med at the time as the side affects she exerienced were scary. A month later we walked in and took our seats with the counselor. Started the session and he asked me what med she was on, with a look of shock on his face. I said no med but I have been very strict that she eats healthy fruits, veggies, meats and breads without corn syrup. She sat and held a pretty normal conversation with him and allowed him to talk to me too without interruption. We did allow for a fun foods Friday but soon she learned how it felt to be out of control due to her food choices. Her dyslexia was also non barely noticable on only healthy foods.
    Being in public school with class parties, school food and outside influence was always extremely difficult to control. As she has grown her behavior fluctuates depending on her choices. She seems drawn to the junk food like a drug but it’s all a life learning experience.

  10. We’ve been a Feingold family for 12 years now. We are total advocates for dye free, additive free foods. Our schools think they’re doing things right by making parents stick to a list of allowable foods to send to parties etc. Meanwhile, Pringles and Oreos are on that list. They have no idea that they are part of the problem. And they don’t want to hear it from us, even though I was brought in to present to the PTA. The principal showed up, as well as a few members, but it was the season premier of American Idol that night. Now we all know where their priorities lie. It’s pathetic.

    1. I totally agree with you on the sad state of affairs. Maybe you need to present again on a non American Idol night :(. Or bring your mic and perform. We had a discussion about “healthy” junk food in our house just this week.

  11. I am in my sixties and am struggling to find foods to eat that don’t effect me in one way or another. Gluten causes depression and extreme irritability, and I am afraid to go to restaurants. Organic foods are not readily available in my area. Other food causes inflammation. What can I do. Who can help?

    1. I do not know of good sources in Canada, which is where I assume you are located? I order a lot of bulk foods which helps a lot and I grow what I can – working on sprouts next. Can you get gluten free grains to make things at home?

    2. You sound like me. Foods causing depression and inflamation. The whole 30 diet makes food choices easier but with knowledge of protein diet and blood type diet as well defines food choices even better when combined. As a blood type O. The blood type diet has also proven true for my whole family as my husband is an AB and I’m an O, our two kids are an A and a B. We all eat acording to their blood type.
      It’s been the hardest for me as they can all digest grains and dairy of some sort. I can not. I must be diligent and totally avoid grains, beans, legumes, sugars and dairy so my mind works right and my joints don’t hurt.
      Hope you find your avoids and learn the foods that help you thrive.

  12. Irregardless of the scientific purity of this experiment it’s just plain common sense to eliminate all chemical additives from your diet and to eat everything else in moderation. How hard is that to grasp.

  13. I just wanted to share that my eight-year-old son has a very extreme Jekyll and Hyde reaction to corn syrup. When he was four he began having symptoms very similar to OCD (he would scream for an hour because he thought some trash on the street had blown out of our car and we needed to put it back in, he has a multi-hour meltdown because his box milk got thrown in the trash at school). It got incredibly extreme and scary. Finally we cut out all sugar and the behavior was eliminated. He began have home-made desserts at our home and seemed fine but the behavior kept popping up again with many snacks at school, etc until we finally narrowed it down to corn syrup. Over the years his behavior has turned more aggressive and out-of-control than simply obsessive, though the element of fixation remains (just the other day a popsicle he ate slipped by notice at school and he kicked a hole in our wall that evening during his complete melt-down). Other times he is a well-behaved, reasonable and calm child.

    I never see anything mentioning corn syrup as a culprit but I really wish more people were aware of the potential effects. It is really like nothing I’ve ever seen and does not seem to happen with our other children so far.

    1. Hi there and thanks for taking the time to share. I think you are right. And it can lead to weakened immune systems too. My youngest just got sick and had more sugar and such over the weekend, against my wishes.

    2. My four year old cannot have any corn product or he has similar behaviours you have mentioned. He cannot have baking powder (made with cornstarch) or the many names of corn and corn syrup in foods or glucose fructose. If he had anything with corn he appears to have severe ADHD, melt downs and aggression. When he is corn free he is a different kid.

      1. I’m just wondering… it is gmo corn? I know GMO’s can do a whole number of things to children and their behavior. Sugar sensitivities are not uncommon, in any form. My kiddo can’t have gluten, dairy and is limited to sugar. She can only have it in moderation.

  14. Great … I became vegetarian in 2012 after reading some research paper of Big University of America. I found the reason behind why meat consuming societies become violent. just for a line in some holy book

    The research paper said that there is a Hormonal system in every bird and mammal and hormones dont have any dedicated duct to flow , these hormones directly comes in blood and muscle , and there is a poisonous hormone comes from Adrenal Gland which is called Emergency Gland , it secretes poisonous hormone , which activates heart bits , sweating , changes psychological condition , Suppose someone in forest and faced a lion , suddenly he gets extra energy to run because of the fear of getting killed , so this hormone works at that time.
    and while cooking meat , this hormone and some other enzymes do not get cooked so easily .Eating meat also takes away mental peace and make people violent. It was also written that as an example that

    1. Eating Meat does not have that effect Raj. Choose which ever way you want to eat but don’t make false statements about meat due to the fact that your a vegetarian. Just nonsense.

  15. Sadly, everything about this “experiment’ was scientifically wrong, setup-wise. The food should have been a food that was or was not laced with the 3 ingredients the researchers were looking to cause problem behaviors. There should not have been talk of “party food” to the party group, and the students also shouldn’t even have been split into different groups – peer pressure, anyone? Separate sociological factors were going on, and nothing was truly scientific about this. No, there should have been just a simple passing out of the same looking food, without the parents, researchers, or children knowing if they got the “problem” causing food or not – a good ol’ double-blind experiment is that hard to do!? Stupid experiment, with results that get us nowhere because of all the mixed variables and lack of true control groups.

  16. Great article! It’s an exercise in common sense when it comes to what we put in/on our bodies. Generally, my children eat simple, whole foods and they are (usually) well-behaved (energetic) boys. As for the junk and behavior, recently we stayed at my father’s house for about 2 weeks. In that span of time my kids ate a steady diet of fast/fried food, chips, cookies, candy, ice cream, soda, etc. (the stuff we don’t have at home). I had Pasta-roni for the first time in almost 20 years (my kids wouldn’t touch it). My 4-year-old became a vicious maniac. My 7-year-old became depressed and lethargic, and ultimately he had a horrible case of constipation. Both boys had sleep issues. Toward the end of the visit, both of them were begging for “something nutritious.” As soon as we returned home, the boys were back to their normal (basically Paleo) diet. The difference is amazing and noteworthy. They are once again happy, energetic children who sleep well and enjoy life.

    My brother’s kids eat out a lot, and they eat a lot of packaged food (very light on the fruits and veggies and only Country Time Lemonade to drink). It’s astounding the difference in behavior (I LOVE my brother and his children!!!) between his kids and mine. My boys aren’t perfect angels, but my brother’s kids have aggression/behavioral issues. When we’re together, I have healthy foods and water available, and his kids become ravenous for them. Their little bodies must seriously crave the nutrients. My 5-year-old nephew demolished almost an entire cantaloupe and a big salad (it was mine, but clearly he needed it more than I did) during our last visit. For breakfast, they always have doughnuts. You’d think my kids would love them – nope. My boys will not touch a doughnut to save their lives. (I know I sound holier-than-thou, but it’s an observation about diet and behavior. Again, I love my brother and his kids!).

    It is such a simple notion: eat well, feel well, be well. It’s all connected. Food is powerful medicine. It’s designed that way. It just makes sense that if we replace natural forms of sustenance with processed crap and deny our bodies those critical nutrients (the ones we can only get from natural food sources), then we will feel like crap and damage our bodies. Our bodies can’t function properly without that lovely spectrum of vitamins and minerals, yet we, as a society, seem to deny that fact. Further, there are vitamins and minerals that rely on other vitamins and minerals in order to do their job in our bodies, which points the need of having a varied diet full of natural food sources. That ensures that we get what we need. End rant.

    1. Thank you!

      I think it’s beyond crazing good nutrients…..that garbage food causes candida and other issues and so of course their brains and bodies aren’t working well b/c of that. It’s amazing how many people are doing fairly well w/ all of the junk in our diets. Hope to see you around again!

  17. The medical profession (for the most part) is even more ignorant about nutrition than the general public. It’s arguably a wilful ignorance; they have a vested interest in writing prescriptions, ordering tests and wielding scalpels, not in asking us what we eat. In a decade of dealing with a chronic digestive disorder, not one single person in the field has ever suggested changes in my diet. Indeed, no one has ever expressed an interest in diet at all.

    When it comes to eating for health, we laypeople are very much on our own.

    1. I don’t think I have ever had a physician talk to me about what I eat either. Thankfully I have been able to do my own research and make my own conclusions.