Simple Ideas with Profound Impact
Nutrition’s link to behavior and the brain
Yes, that’s right… the food that your child eats can have a big impact on his or her behavior. Why? Because in the end, everything that happens in the brain boils down to biochemical reactions. The raw materials for those biochemical reactions come from the foods that we eat. So, diet can significantly affect brain function and therefore can impact energy, mood, emotion, mental clarity, behavior… really, almost any aspect of function.
Today, first we’re going to do a crash course in how you can you feed your child so that nutrition contributes to creating civil behavior by enhancing brain function. Then, we’ll take a look at the foods that most often contribute to behavior problems and give a few real-life examples of children with huge behavior issues and how we changed everything for them by changing their nutrition.
How to Feed a Growing Brain
In the first year of life, breast milk is the ideal food for a growing child with some soft solid (or pureed) foods being introduced after about six months of age – and by this, we do not mean rice cereal and other such grains. You can read more recommendations on foods in the first year of life in this excellent guest post from our good friend, Deborah Gordon, M.D.
Once children start eating regular food it is important that you choose foods carefully so that the brain gets what it needs.
All food should be…
No artificial chemicals. No food flavorings, no food colorings, no food preservatives, no artificial thickeners, no artificial anything. The human body is designed to process, metabolize, and eliminate real food. It has no idea what to do with artificial chemicals. Most kids with neurological issues do not react well to artificial chemicals. Avoid them like the plague! This means that you MUST become a label reader. You will be amazed at the junk in the food you eat.
Fresh vegetables and fruit contain the highest vitamin and mineral content. It’s just that simple. Since vegetables and fruit should be the number one source of vitamins and minerals it only makes sense to eat them in a form that provides the most bang for the buck. Another reason that fresh is best is fresh food is more than just calories and nutrients. Fresh food has a life force… it is life sustaining life. You won’t find any life force in canned carrots.
This means foods from which nothing has been taken away. For example, if you are going to eat bread then whole grain bread is more nutritious than white bread, brown rice is more nutritious than white rice, etc.
Essential foods for the brain include:
Beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, fish, etc. Ideally, all protein should come from sources that raise their animals as nature meant for them to be raised. There is a world of difference in the meat that comes from pasture-raised cattle versus cattle raised on grain. Cows are not designed by nature to eat corn, soy, or oats. They are designed to eat grass. And just like us, what they eat makes all the difference. Mainly, the difference is in the fat content. Your cardiologist may very well tell you that you shouldn’t eat red meat. It’s bad for your heart because of the fat. Wrong! The fat from red meat that is pasture raised is really good for you! Really good for your heart and your brain! Why? Because it is very rich in omega-3 fatty acids and the balance of omega-3 fatty acids (high) to omega-6 fatty acids (low) is in its ideal ratio. On the other hand, if you eat meat from grain-fed animals the opposite is true. So, it’s not that red meat is bad for your heart. It’s a question of how that red meat was raised. The same principle applies to all other forms of protein. When it comes to fish, wild is best.
Omega-3 fatty acids are the most important. You can get most of that from protein sources (see lean protein). Good cooking fats are avocado oil, coconut oil, butter from grass-fed cows, and grass-fed ghee (clarified butter). Good oils for salads, etc. are olive oil, walnut oil, almond oil, macadamia oil. Avoid soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, and vegetable oil. Avoid, like the plague, vegetable shortening, margarine and all butter substitutes, anything that says “hydrogenated”, and anything else that doesn’t look real.
This is the main source of vitamins and minerals. The easiest way to talk about what vegetables to eat is to say that you should go for as much color as possible. By eating the rainbow of colors available you ensure the widest range of nutrients (vitamins and minerals) in your diet. Beyond that, the only other caveat is that vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and sweet corn are high in sugar so you want to keep them under control
Fruit in moderation is good for your child. Berries (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries) are particularly good because they are very rich in antioxidants. Don’t drink fruit, eat it. Fruit juice is extremely high in sugar.
Pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, and almonds are all good for you. They are a good source of protein and healthy fats, and all contain antioxidants. Don’t go overboard but a few handfuls a day is perfectly healthy. Nuts are also often available in the form of nut butter which makes it easy for children to eat. By the way, peanuts are not nuts, they are legumes. They really are not very good for you and must be approached with caution if there is a family history of allergies.
Again, you can read more about good nutrition for your growing child in our guest post from Deborah Gordon, M.D.
Nutrition Solutions for Behavior Issues
Over the course of more than four decades of working with children, we have worked with many children who had behavior issues that ranged from simply annoying to downright dangerous. Solving those issues usually involves a multi-pronged approach and improving diet is usually a big part of that. Many children have food sensitivities, many have food allergies, and these can be a major cause of behavior issues.
We have always found it interesting and frustrating that while most people (and many doctors) have no difficulty accepting the idea that sensitivities and/or allergies can cause reactions in the upper respiratory tract (sneezing, coughing, breathing problems, etc.) and the skin (rashes, itching, etc.) they have great difficulty accepting the idea that these same sensitivities and/or allergies can cause reactions in the brain. As if the brain somehow lives in another universe and is immune to the same things that affect the rest of the body!
Our clinical experience demonstrates very clearly that food can and does affect brain function. Here’s the bottom line. If you are seeing behavior issues in your child one of the things you should look at is the foods that your child eats and the possibility that he or she might have sensitivities or allergies to one or more of those foods. The most common culprits in terms of food sensitivities and allergies are dairy, eggs, gluten, soy, corn, sugar, and artificial chemicals (preservatives, coloring, flavoring). However, when children are really sensitive they can react to lots of different foods, even foods that we normally consider to be completely innocuous. Lettuce, for example, can cause some children to react! But, by far, the biggest issues we see are with sugar and gluten.
Foods to eliminate, avoid or reduce:
Refined sugar affects blood sugar level and insulin production causing a yo-yo effect with blood sugar level constantly on a roller coaster. This negatively affects energy level, concentration ability, mood, and emotional stability. Something that most people do not know is that sugar also causes chronic inflammation in the body. Because of this, it is linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, liver disease, and cancer. Refined sugar has a powerful addictive effect, making it very difficult to stop eating it unless one makes a concerted effort. When we say sugar, we mean all forms of sweetener – cane sugar, beet sugar, agave syrup, high fructose corn syrup, etc. Also, all artificial sweeteners should be avoided. Honey and maple syrup in small quantities are usually tolerated.
Gluten causes gut inflammation in most of the population and many people develop antibodies against gluten proteins in the gut. Gluten’s inflammatory effect in the gut causes intestinal cells to die prematurely and causes oxidation in those cells. This effect creates a leaky gut and a leaky gut can allow bacterial proteins and other toxic compounds to get in the bloodstream, which can also lead to autoimmune attacks on the body. A leaky gut also means that food is not digested properly and nutrients are not absorbed fully, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
Real World Examples
Now for a few examples of kids with behavior issues and how changes in diet made a big difference. We have hundreds of examples of this.
Alberto and Sugar
Alberto came to us from Venezuela at 8 years of age. To outward appearances, he was like all of the other boys his age. Except that Alberto had big learning difficulties, poor concentration, and very disruptive behavior. He was failing miserably in school. He was diagnosed with ADHD.
After evaluating him, we taught his parents and grandmother a developmental program to improve his function and, hopefully, his behavior. Part of that program involved making changes in his diet. He ate a ton of sugar. His mother even sprinkled sugar on meat in order to get him to eat it! Before flying back to Venezuela, Alberto stayed in the US for a few weeks with his grandmother in order to attend his uncle’s graduation from law school. That turned out to be a very good thing for Alberto because his grandmother was determined to see him improve and she implemented our dietary suggestions immediately. Just before heading back to Caracas, only two weeks after changing his diet, Alberto’s grandmother called to tell us of the incredible changes in him. He was already a different child – reduced hyperactivity, improved concentration, fewer tantrums. Within one year of us seeing him for the first time, Alberto was able to function just like his peers. Much of that progress was due to the changes we made in his diet.
Jake and Gluten
Jake came to us at about 10 years of age with a diagnosis of autism. On the day that we saw him for the first time, there was a shooting in a local high school in which a number of children were injured. As we were taking Jake’s initial history, his mother asked if we had heard about the shooting. She then said to us, “My biggest fear is that one day a few years from now, I am going to get a phone call from the police telling me that my son was a school shooter”! Can you imagine the fear?
And she had good reason to be afraid. Jake’s behavior was extremely volatile. He was a bright boy but had significant problems with social and emotional development. He could easily have ten knock down, drag out temper tantrums in a day. His younger sister was terrified of him. On that first day, we saw his outbursts a number of times. So, although we rarely do this at the first consultation, with Jake we decided to eliminate all gluten from his diet immediately. We did this based on his typical daily diet (it contained lots of gluten!) and based on our experience with many other children with similar behavior issues.
A week later, Jake’s mother called to give us a report. Immediately after our consultation, she had completely emptied the house of everything that contained gluten and implemented the dietary changes we had recommended. Within days she saw changes in Jake’s behavior. He was more pleasant, less agitated, calmer. Most significantly he was having fewer temper tantrums, they were less violent, and of shorter duration. She was thrilled! Within six months, Jake was already a completely different child. There was still more work to be done but for the first time in his life he was making true progress and she could see the wonderful boy that she knew was inside that body.
Fortunately, these two examples are by no means unusual for us. We see results like this on a regular basis. When we give the human brain what it needs to thrive and avoid those things that cause problems it is amazing how quickly the brain responds.
So, do yourself and your children a favor. Pay careful attention to how you feed them. If, for some reason, your child is experiencing behavior difficulties then make sure you take nutrition into consideration.