Is There a Link Between a Child's Diet and Behavior Problems?

Could your child's diet be behind his behavior problems?
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Parents who struggle with to manage a child’s behavioral problems--particularly in those children Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)--often search for a cause for hyperactive and disruptive behavior. And it makes sense that the child’s diet might be the first to blame.

Research is mixed when it comes to a link between diet and behavior problems, so while it might not be the culprit, it can’t be ruled out either.

If you have a concern, talk to your pediatrician about how to improve your child’s diet to see if it makes a difference in his behavior.

Nutrient Deficiency and Behavior

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there’s not convincing evidence to support that a poor diet, lacking in important dietary components, can cause ADHD. However, AAP does note that insufficient protein or caloric intake can hinder a child’s learning abilities and behavior. The Academy also reports one study involving 100 boys, found that those who consumed lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids had more learning and behavioral problems than those whose diet contained normal levels.

Sugar and Hyperactivity

Parents love to point the finger at sugar as the root cause of behavior problems in their child. Unfortunately, however, the research simply doesn’t back up this notion, nor have any studies found that artificial sugars, such as aspartame, can be linked to behavioral problems.

Of course, consuming excess sugar can lead to a number of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, obesity and tooth decay--meaning that eliminating it from your child’s diet can only do more good than harm.

One study, though, published in 2009 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined the diets of 4,000 children.

Those who ate a diet rich in “junk food” around age 4.5 were more likely to have increased hyperactivity at age 7 than those who did not eat as much junk food.

Food Dyes and Additives

In the 1970s, Dr. Benjamin Feingold theorized that food additives, as well as food dyes and artificial flavorings, could be the cause of ADHD and other behavioral problems. Commonly fingered additives include tartrazine, quinoline yellow, sodium benzoate and sunset yellow; these are typically added to food to increase shelf life and include color and texture.

The doctor’s theories led to the popularity of the Feingold Diet; however, AAP notes that controlled studies showed that only around 2 percent of children diagnosed with ADHD who went on the Feingold Diet showed improvement in behavior. The Academy notes, though, that reducing processed foods--which often contain additives, dyes and artificial flavorings--promotes long-term health.

The Importance of a Healthy Breakfast

Myriad research has found that students who eat breakfast either before or at school show improvement in behavior during the school day, says the Food Research Action Center (FRAC).

Overall, students who regularly eat breakfast are less likely to experience depression, anxiety or hyperactivity, and are more likely to attend schools and be punctual.

Offer your child a healthy blend of whole grains and lean protein to get their brain and body going for the day. Healthy options include an egg with whole-grain toast; a turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread or oatmeal with a hardboiled egg on the side.

Talk To Your Child's Doctor

Despite the research, if you suspect that your child’s diet might be partly to blame for his behavior, make an appointment with your pediatrician. A doctor can walk you through steps to safely attempt to eliminate certain foods to see if there’s any improvement in the child’s health and behavior. Don’t attempt to make large-scale changes to your child’s diet without consulting a health professional, as you could end up doing more harm if you remove important nutrients.

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