Children are dynamic creatures and their development is the product of multiple factors, including innate temperament (nature) and environmental factors such as discipline (nurture). The connection between nutrition and behavior is often overlooked by parents of spirited children. However, the impact of diet has emerged as an important factor regarding child behavior. While some of the information about diet and child behavior has been over-hyped with little evidence, one cannot dismiss the fact that we are, at least to some degree, what we eat.

rethinking meals

Nutrition is related to both nature and nurture in that all children need healthy foods. Some children are more vulnerable by nature to poor nutrition; this vulnerability may be expressed with difficult behavior. Steering clear of pop-nutrition hype, parents are safe to assume that they cannot go wrong when focusing on healthy, whole (unprocessed) foods for their children. Sounds easy right? Many rushed parents are happy to get anything into their child at all (bring on the chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and a breakfast granola bar in the car). But with conviction, it is possible to gradually proceed in reshaping the family’s nutrition.

Increasing protein, especially at breakfast, is a priority. Lose the sugary cereal, doughnuts and processed bars. Go for eggs, chicken sausages, peanut or almond butter spread on fruit or even turkey or salmon if they want it. Grilled cheese? Why not? Protein is brain food that accelerates the neurochemicals responsible for learning and self control. High sugar and carbs can lead to a crash later on and a grumpy kid by mid morning. Waking 15-20 minutes earlier so there is less stress in the morning can be helpful. Then sit down as a family. Avoid TV or other diversions until after a reasonable breakfast is consumed.

gluten and other ingredients

Whether to smear almond butter on bread rather than fruit slices may depend on your child’s tolerance for gluten. Gluten is found in cereals and grains like wheat. While the literature is not conclusive, there are a few controlled studies that demonstrate behavioral improvements in children when gluten is eliminated from their diet, especially among those with ADHD and Autism. However, this is only among children who have intolerance for gluten—not all kids. Give it 30 days and see what happens.

Processed foods, including fast foods, contain many additives including MSG and dyes which have an impact on the behavior of vulnerable children. They also contain vast amounts of sugar and sodium and are filled with empty calories that increase the risk of obesity and other health risks. Limit these foods to special occasions.

Increasing good fats like Omega-3’s which are found in oily fish (salmon) is another healthful addition to your child’s diet. Omega-3’s promote brain function by binding with the cells in the brain (neurons) and facilitating smooth transmission of information from neuron to neuron. While the results of increasing your child’s intake of Omega-3’s will not be dramatic, research has proven that it has a positive effect on brain function, especially for kids with ADHD and associated “spirited” behavior. Most children do not get enough Omega-3 from their diet alone so a supplement is necessary; invest in a high quality one.

While parents should not be fanatical about nutrition, food is important. The diets of children with behavior issues require particular scrutiny because the root of their problem may be nutrition. Start gradually and believe that change is possible. Parents should modify their own diet first and then lead by example. Stock the pantry with whole foods and snacks and don’t restock the junk! Avoid coercion and drama; eventually, all hungry children eat. And in the end a healthier diet may lead to better behavior.

by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D.

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