Michelle 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 Facebook, Twitter, 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, 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.
Gluten 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.
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 and autism . 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.
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  and acts as an endocrine disruptor. 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!).
Research demonstrates that artificial food colors (AFCs) negatively impact attentiveness, restlessness, and (most clearly) irritability in children. 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…)  
The common food preservative sodium benzoate has been linked to hyperactive behavior in typically developing children. 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.
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