Guest Post by Michelle Fitzpatrick – Part 2: What To Feed Your Kids

June 16, 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.

Last week I described how certain foods can contribute to child behavior problems, such as attention, non-compliance, impulsivity, anxiety and more (here’s the link if you missed it). But if you eliminate gluten, soy, and other processed “foods” in order to improve your child’s behavior, what should you replace it with?


Recent research has found that children with diets low in protein are more likely to have aggression, hyperactivity, and conduct problems.[1] Approximately 18-20% of the brain is composed of protein, while only about 1% is carbohydrate, so it makes sense that protein is a necessity for optimal brain functioning. Increased dietary protein can decrease problem behaviors.

Seafood and Fish

crabs_on_ice-300x225The omega-3 fatty acid DHA, primarily found in seafood, fish, eggs, and liver, has a profound impact on the developing brain. In fact, DHA is so important for prenatal and infant brain development that most OB/GYNs in the US recommend pregnant and lactating women take a daily DHA supplement. Brain imaging studies (fMRI) have shown that dietary DHA increases brain activity in areas associated with attention and memory.[2] Children given a DHA supplement during infancy are better able to follow rules during preschool.[3]  And several studies on ADHD and Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) have found that DHA supplementation leads to decreased problem behaviors and increased pro-social behavior.[4]

Probiotic-Rich Foods

Healthy behavior starts with a happy gut. Probiotics, gut microbiota that assist in the digestive process, can aid child behavior by improving the Gut-Brain Axis. Probiotic supplementation during infancy decreases colicky behavior of prolonged crying and irritability.[5] Supplementing with probiotics in children with autism, who often have abnormal gut bacteria, often improves digestion contributes to improved behavioral symptoms.[6] Probiotics are naturally occurring in fermented foods such as kombucha, pickles, and sauerkraut, as well as kefir and yogurt for those who tolerate dairy. Other gut-healing foods such as bone broth and gelatin also aid behavior by decreasing gut, brain, and body-wide inflammation. (see Sarah’s review for the book Fermented, a guide to fermenting a variety of foods)

Vitamin- and Mineral-Rich Foods

Micronutrient deficiencies have long been associated with developmental problems. A brain that does not receive adequate vitamins and minerals cannot function at full capacity.

There is a well-documented relationship between B vitamins and child behavior. A recent Australian study found that adolescents with lower intakes of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, and folate were more likely to demonstrate aggressive and antisocial behaviors, and those with low B6 and folate intake were more likely to demonstrate symptoms of depression[7].

Inadequate levels of vitamins B1 (thiamine)[8] [9], B2 (riboflavin)[10], B3 (niacin)[11], B5[12], B6[13], B12[14], and folate[15] have all been shown to contribute to impulsivity, irritability, aggression, hyperactivity, anxiety, fatigue, depression, temper tantrums, and poor concentration. B vitamins are most easily absorbed when they are eaten in whole foods (as opposed to from supplements), including dark leafy greens, eggs, liver, and seafood.

IMG_0130Low levels of vitamin D have also been associated with problem childhood behaviors. Vitamin D is vital to brain function and necessary for production of the neurotransmitter (brain messenger), serotonin. Behaviors such as irritability, aggression, impulsivity, and withdrawal are associated with low serotonin levels.[16] Kids and teens with ADHD[17] and autism[18] have significantly lower levels of vitamin D than their peers, indicating a relationship between vitamin D and behavior. Vitamin D is primarily found in seafood and liver. It is also produced by the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight.

Kids with diets low in zinc (found in seafood, meat, nuts, and spinach) and iron (found in red meat, liver, egg yolks, and dark leafy greens) are more likely to exhibit aggressive, antisocial, hyperactive and irritable behavior than their well-nourished friends. Deficiencies in these important minerals at age 3 continue to correlate with negative behavior throughout childhood.[19]

Insufficient intake of magnesium, a mineral vital for hundreds of enzymatic reactions in the body, can lead to irritability and anxiety.[20] Magnesium supplementation decreases anxiety/aggression and increase attentiveness.[21] (I love Natural Calm. I immediately have a glass of it whenever I feel anxiety start to sneak up on me.) Magnesium is found in nuts and seeds, leafy greens, avocado, bananas and dairy.

The Bottom Line

Behavioral problems in kids, whether they are age-appropriate outbursts or full-blown disorders, can leave you feeling completely out of control. It is important to focus on environmental changes that you do have the ability to influence, such as diet. Dietary changes are not easy, but can lead to some pretty huge results that make the challenge totally worth it. Now go out, buy some organ meat, and put on a pot of bone broth!

[1]Lui, J. & Raine, A. (2006). The effect of childhood malnutrition on externalizing behavior. Current Opinion in Pediatrics. 18(5).

[7]Herbison, C.E., Hickling, S., et al. (2012). Low intake of B-vitamins is associated with poor adolescent mental health and behavior. Preventive Medicine. 55(6).

[12] Herbison, C.E., Hickling, S., et al. (2012). Low intake of B-vitamins is associated with poor adolescent mental health and behavior. Preventive Medicine. 55(6).

[13] Herbison, C.E., Hickling, S., et al. (2012). Low intake of B-vitamins is associated with poor adolescent mental health and behavior. Preventive Medicine. 55(6).

[15] Herbison, C.E., Hickling, S., et al. (2012). Low intake of B-vitamins is associated with poor adolescent mental health and behavior. Preventive Medicine. 55(6).

[17] Kamal, M. , Bener, A. & Ehlayel, M.L. (2014) Is high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency a correlate of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: 6(2)

[21] Starobrat-Hermelin, B. & Kozielec, T. (1997). The effects of magnesium physiological supplementation on children with ADHD. Magnesium Research: 10(2).


Hi, I really enjoyed your articles! I have an almost 2 year old that is the pickiest eater ever. I have slowly worked my way into a strict AIP paleo diet (due to celiac and Sarah’s book). My husband doesn’t follow a paleo diet, but is happy to eat what I make, my son is a bit of a different story. I keep him gluten free at home, he does get milk and cheese, he eats veggies and fruit really well, and a couple of proteins such as bacon, chicken apple sausage and sometimes eggs, but that is it. I can’t get him to eat meat 90 percent of the time, which is why I don’t have him on a paleo diet completely. Do you have any suggestions?

I have been a nanny for several families, and I do not believe it’s a coincidence that the parents who fed their children freshly caught fish and beef heart were the most talented and well spoken 7 year olds I have come across. I hope more parents realize that convenience foods don’t have to come in shiny packages to be kid friendly! At the same time, we all need to take convenient eating out of our lifestyle and spend time seeking seeking nutrient dense foods that that don’t just sustain life but help us thrive.

Good explanation on nutrition here. I’m sure this is what people need to know, especially how nutrients affect kids. Might be good reinforcement for having the Paleo Diet.

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