Guest Post by Michelle Fitzpatrick – Part 1: What Not To Feed Your Kids

June 11, 2014 in Categories: by

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picture_michelleMichelle Fitzpatrick, author of the Happy Paleo Kids blog, has worked with special needs children and their families for over 13 years to promote development and mental health. She adopted a “Paleo Diet” to lose weight after baby number 3, and quickly saw that the benefits of eating nutrient-rich, plant-and-animal-based foods would benefit her entire family. After applying the Paleo Philosophy to her family, she felt compelled to find a way to bring the science behind how food impacts child development to the masses. Follow her blog, Happy Paleo Kids, or keep up to date on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

I can’t count the number of times it’s happened. At a playdate watching a parent pull out packages of processed snacks while they complain, “I don’t know what’s wrong. His tantrums have been out of control this week!”  While anyone who’s experienced the post-meal food coma cannot deny that food affects mood and behavior, we tend to overlook the daily impact of the foods we feed our kids.

While some foods clearly improve child behavior (for example, seafood and other DHA-rich foods), many foods and additives can turn your “Sweet Samantha” into a “Terrible Terry.” They do this by disrupting the normal digestive process, by influencing hormone production in the body, and/or by attacking the brain directly.

These foods, additives, and food-like substances can have a negative impact on child behavior and overall development.


glutenGluten causes inflammation of the entire body including the brain. Just as an inflamed gut cannot properly digest food, an inflamed brain can’t properly process and respond to information. Children with chronic brain inflammation may experiences memory/cognitive disadvantages, difficulties with mood and anxiety, and problem behaviors[1].

Gluten contributes to vitamin and mineral deficiencies by sticking to other vital nutrients before your body can absorb them. Children with nutritional deficiencies (including magnesium, calcium, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin A and vitamin D) are more likely to exhibit problematic behaviors.


Soy impacts child behavior in many ways. Preliminary research has shown an association between soy-based infant formula and both ADHD[2] and autism[3] [4]. Most soy consumed in the US is processed with extremely high quantities of aluminum, which has a negative impact on memory and learning and has been associated with the rise in autism.[5]

It is also a naturally occurring phytoestrogen – that is, it mimics estrogen. Anything that interferes with hormones impacts behavior (and totally freaks me out). To top it off, soy contains large amounts of phytates, which bind to vitamins and minerals in food and rob the body of beneficial nutrients.


Excitotoxins are chemical additives found in processed foods. They cause brain cells to become overexcited, to “fire” excessively until exhausted and then to die a few hours later. The most common excitotoxins are aspartame, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and hydrolyzed vegetable protein. Research on animals has found exposure to excitotoxins has a negative impact on learning new complex tasks and behaviors in rats[6] [7] and acts as an endocrine disruptor[8]. Take a look at this list of hidden names for MSG and other excitotoxins to make sure your bases are covered (so far about 70 have been identified, and the list keeps growing… yikes!).

Food dyes

_MG_5191_Research demonstrates that artificial food colors (AFCs) negatively impact attentiveness, restlessness, and (most clearly) irritability in children.[9]  The research is so compelling that the British government concluded that artificial colors increased hyperactivity in children in the general population and subsequently banned their use altogether in 2009 (why the US didn’t follow suit is beyond me…) [10] [11]


The common food preservative sodium benzoate has been linked to hyperactive behavior in typically developing children[12]. The impact of other preservatives on child behavior have not been well studied, but it is not unlikely that they might have negative impact as well.

To sum it up…

These foods and chemicals can affect behavior directly (as described above) or indirectly. They take up major space on your child’s plate that would be otherwise devoted to nutrient-dense, mood-and-behavior boosting foods. As soon as you start to remove these bullies from your child’s diet, you make room for nutrient-rich alternatives that will fuel their body for healthy behavior and development (and for me, fewer tantrums means a much happier, saner mommy).

Now that you know what NOT to feed your kiddo, stay tuned for more from me on foods that improve child behavior! Part 2, What To Feed Your Kids, will be published next week.

[2] Crinella, F.M. (2012) . Does soy-based infant formula cause ADHD? Update and public policy considerations. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics: 12(4).

[3] Jyonouchi, C., Geng, L., Ruby, A., Redy, C., & Zimmerman-Bier, B. (2005) Evaluation of an association between gastrointestinal symptoms and cytokine production against common dietary proteins in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Pediatrics: 146(5)

[5] Shaw, C.A. & Tomljenovic, L. (2013). Aluminum in the central nervous system: Toxicity in humans and animals, vaccine adjuvants, and autoimmunity. Immunology Research: 56(2-3).

[6] Wong, P.T., Neo L.H., et al. (1997). Deficits in water escape performance and alterations in hippocampal cholinergic mechanisms associated with neonatal monosodium glutamate treatment in mice. Pharmacology Biochemedical Behavior: 57.

[7] Klingberg H, Brankack J, Klingberg F. (1987). Long-term effects on behavior after post-natal treatment with monosodium L-glutamate. Biomedical Biochemistry ACTA: (46).

[8] Maiter D, Underwood LE, et al. (1991) Neonatal treatment with monosodium glutamate: effects of prolonged growth hormone(GH)-releasing hormone deficiency on pulsatile GH secretion and growth in female rats. Endocrinology: (128)


It amazed me, listening to one of my podcast guests, as she explained how one of the biggest ways gluten sensitivity manifests in children is not through digestive problems, but through difficulty concentrating, & learning (as you just noted as well).

Throw in the food dyes & preservatives, and we’ve got a nasty concoction kids are these days. What a great, well-referenced post, Michelle-thanks for sharing 🙂

BTW-could you imagine, with all the kids put on medication these days, if they first switched to a paleo-style lifestyle??? Gives me shivers to think about.

I could agree more, Dr. Tremba. I believe the stats are about 1 in 4 children are on medication for behavioral problems such as ADHD, anxiety, or depression. These medications are band aids for symptoms that don’t treat the underlying causes of the behavior(s). We don’t know the long term consequences of these medications on kids’ developing bodies.

I am not a scientist or medically trained but I agree from watching my children. We eat fresh food at home more than 90% of the time; however, when we eat meals out, my children’s behavior changes. They get moody and in this catatonic state (we call it a bread or sugar coma).

So unfortunate that quality research has been misinterpreted to fit your agenda. No doubt none of us need additives and chemicals in our food in the quantities so widely available but it is a HUGE leap to take controlled research studies of disease states and apply it to healthy children!

Unfortunately much of the research on child behavior and nutrition has not yet moved to healthy/typically developing children (and even what we have in clinical populations is not always large samples, etc.). I, too, look forward to following the research as it explores the impact of these additives more thoroughly on normative populations.

If there’s not much research on healthy and neurotypical children, you really should not use the existing data and fabricate your own conclusions. This is dangerously misleading.

I’ve found this to be very true in my case. Times that my child is eating a specially tailored diet her temperament is drastically different than when she’s exposed to less-than-ideal foods.

I would give you a big fat hug if you were here! I wish my extended family could read this. It’s so hard limiting my children’s diet BUT I know that they will benefit from everything I give them {as well as NOT give to them}. Just wish the grandparents were all on board…humpppphhhh. 😉

I’ve been studying excitoxicity in the brain for nearly 15 years, and the information here about MSG directly altering brain chemistry is just plain wrong. Yes, it is true that glutamate is neurotransmitter in the brain (i.e. good and normal) and that during injury (like stroke or blunt force injury) glutamate can be released in larger than normal amounts and exacerbate injury. However, there is NO evidence that glutamate alone causes injury, and there is NO evidence that eating MSG will make glutatate levels go up in your brain. The brain protects itself with a specialized system that prevents everything in the blood from going directly into the brain. We call this specialized system the blood brain barrier (BBB).
So in sum, if MSG could cross the BBB (not a lot of evidence here), then you might not want that Chinese take-out before having brain surgery, but in reality, the amounts are so much smaller than that which is going to be released during surgery, it would be impossible to even detect a difference. Not only that, all kinds of paleo friendly food have natural amounts of free glutamate in them. This is important to note, because in solution (i.e. a liquid) MSG will dissociate into a sodium ion and a glutamate ion (same thing as free glutamate).
This is all not to say that MSG doesn’t have any effect, but it might not be from the glutamate at all. Eating large amounts of sodium, the other part of MSG, can dehydrate you and give you a headache. And I’m not trying to discount any new research that might come along, but the current literature doesn’t support these conclusions, and I’m disappointed that Sarah would allow such conclusions to add to the peudoscience that pollutes the internet. People will believe what they read here because Sarah has a PhD, even if the person is a “guest blogger.”
And as to the references, you’ll note that nothing is recent, because to find an effect they had to inject (not feed, because that didn’t work) large amounts of MSG. After these studies, all the hype lost the attention of the academic community because the scientific conditions weren’t physiological (not relevant to humans in everyday life).

Hi! I know that this is an older post, but I linked to the list of hidden MSG, and it included gelatin…so I’m curious about that. Is MSG in some form in any gelatin, or just conventional? Should we still be okay using Great Lakes gelatin? Thanks for the clarification!

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