Behavior Issues: Are You Really What You Eat?
Published January 2013
Updated February 20, 2019
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If you were in a grocery store a few years ago and saw a woman crying in aisle 7, it was me. I had decided to put my family on a Gluten Free diet, and it was then that I realized how much work it was going to be. I heard about this Gluten Free/Casein Free diet after seeing Jenny McCarthy on Oprah. My son is on the autism spectrum, has attention issues, and has Apraxia. I thought this might save us hours of therapy and work. That didn’t happen, though we did have lots more energy and were better focused.

Eventually we slipped back into our old eating ways, but the link between food and behavior is back in the spotlight now that more parents claim it absolutely helps! Fortunately, companies are paying attention and now have products to meet consumer demand for gluten and dye-free foods.

Jane Faus, Director of the Feingold Association, and Faye Elahi, a Special Needs Nutritionist, explain how and why food affects behavior.

If you’ve ever wondered why your child seemed irritable, hyper, unable to sleep or appears moody, diet might be to blame. While all children have these behaviors at times, some display them more than others. Mrs. Faus pointed out that some children are deathly allergic to bee stings or peanuts, others aren’t affected at all. Some children have a high tolerance to red and yellow dyes; others can’t eat whipped cream if a cherry sat on the top. If you or your children notice negative behaviors or physical ailments, begin looking for patterns. If you notice one, consider what you have been eating. Read labels and take notes. It certainly couldn’t hurt!

Faye Elahi, Special Needs Nutritionist, discussed the reason for being Gluten Free. She states that some symptoms of candidiasis (gluten sensitivity) include hyperactivity, irritability, high anxiety, inattention, and mood swings. In her practice, Elahi reports 80% of autistic children exhibit gluten sensitivity with simultaneous food allergies. Like Faus, she says symptoms improve by following a diet that excludes gluten (yeast), casein (dairy), MSG, aspartame, and/or artificial coloring. Even if a child does not have autism or a learning disability, the “typical” child could benefit from avoiding these synthetic foods. Though food dyes have been around for years, candy was only given at special holidays until about thirty years ago. It certainly was never given out at schools! How much could my children be consuming? I checked my pantry. She was right; these synthetic chemicals are everywhere. In the frozen French toast I “cook” for breakfast, in crackers, in yogurt, and in the gummy treats they earned while potty training.

Mrs. Faus explained that in studies, a little bit of preservatives didn’t cause damage at all, which is why the FDA allowed these into our food in the first place. But a little bit adds up to a lot. Consider this research: blue dye damaged nerve cells, and MSG damaged nerve cells. When they were combined, the nerve cells were damaged four times as often. When aspartame and yellow food dye were mixed, cells were damaged seven times as much as when they were independent of each other.

Other research suggests Yellow 5 causes you to lose zinc through urine and saliva. For people with ADHD, zinc is lost even faster than someone without ADHD. Zinc is an essential trace mineral, Faus explained, and is required by hundreds of our body’s enzymes involved with the metabolism of protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Zinc is also critical for wound healing, immune system function, and cognitive functions.

Fortunately, many brands now offer two similar products with and without additives, and most children won’t notice a difference. I put Ms. Faus to the test. I found several varieties of boxed macaroni and cheese. I read the labels and easily found one on the list of “safer” foods. Because it was white cheddar flavor, it had no dyes in it. It cost the same amount, and my kids didn’t notice. Buying a box of buttermilk frozen waffles instead of the original flavor, I’ve spared us unpronounceable additives. I even found “safe” Cheetos! I’m Supermom! My grocery bill didn’t change, shopping didn’t take me any longer, and my kids were none the wiser. An added bonus is that my son finally sleeps through the night and is better focused at school.

After giving me several reasons why I shouldn’t be eating food with artificial coloring, Ms. Faus asked me if I could offer her one reason they were necessary. As she expected, I couldn’t think of any. If you aren’t sure if it will make a difference, it’s worth a shot. You might just be pleasantly surprised!

You can learn more from Jane Faus by visiting feingold.org.

Faye Elahi, M.S., M.A. is a Special Needs Nutritionist. She has written several books and has been published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Julia no longer cries in grocery stores. Contact her at julia@juliagarstecki.com