Brisbane based dietician, Jocelyn Hunter Clarke
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Diet behaviour connection

Evidence suggests that certain substances within commonly eaten foods can impact on behaviour in some children. In fact a wide variety of food substances can trigger a range of unwanted effects in susceptible children.

These unwanted behavioural effects can include:

  • inattention, dreaminess
  • mood changes, emotional ‘meltdown’, temper tantrums
  • irritability, restlessness, distractability
  • touchiness, easily annoyed
  • hyperactivity
  • oppositional defiant behaviours

and also some non-behavioural effects such as:

  • sleep disturbances, night terrors
  • unexplained gastrointestinal (gut) symptoms such as tummy pain, diarrhoea, constipation

These adverse responses to foods are often called food sensitivity, food chemical sensitivity or food intolerance.

Which foods?

Over the past 10-20 years there has been a vast increase in packaged and processed foods, a move away from eating fruit and vegetables seasonally, and an increase in highly concentrated forms of certain foods such as sauces and fruit juices. This means children today receive a much higher “body load” of food chemicals than ever before and for some children this is bad news.

The food chemicals involved in food sensitivities are found in many different foods. They include many of the additive chemicals found in junk foods and some healthy packaged foods, and also some of the natural chemicals found in many healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables.

Limiting junk foods and packaged foods is a good starting point, but for some children this will not be enough.

Food additives

Food additives such as artificial colours, preservatives and flavour strigger unwanted behaviours or symptoms in some children.

Natural chemicals in foods

Some of the natural chemicals found in common foods, including organic foods, can also trigger problems in some children. These natural chemicals include

  • Salicylates in many fruits, fruit juices& vegetables
  • Amines in foods such as chocolate, citrus fruits & mature cheeses
  • Glutamatesin foods such as tomatoes, mushrooms & soy sauce

These natural chemicals are an important part of foods as they add flavour or smell to foods,are involved in the ripening process, or provide natural pesticide defence in the case of fruits and vegetables. But for some children they trigger unwanted symptoms or behaviours, particularly if eaten in large quantities.

Wheat and milk

In children who are particularly food sensitive, problem behaviours or symptoms may also be aggravated by whole foods such as wheat or milk. It is important to consult the dietitian before excluding these foods long term as nutritional problems can occur.

Sugar

Sugar frequently gets bad press as it isincorrectly reported to be linked to adverse behaviour in children.There is very little evidence to support this connection but it is easy to see how the confusion arises because many high sugar foods also contain additive colours, flavours, salicylates or amines which are the more likely suspects. Of course, whether sugar affects behaviour or not, most children should eat fewer sugary foods for nutrition reasons.

Which children?

It is not clear what percentage ofchildren in the population has adverse behavioural responses to food substances. More large scale research is needed to accurately answer this question.

There is some evidence that a child is more susceptible to food sensitivities if:

  • There is a history of allergies or food intolerancesin the child or immediate family
  • There is eczema, migraine, or irritable bowel syndrome present in the child or immediate family
  • The parent/s can give a specific example of a food causing a definite change in symptoms or behaviour of their child at some time

Changes in irritability, activity, sleep, concentration or impulsivity cannot be explained by the normal ups and downs of life, and all other possible medical causes for the symptoms have been considered

Food sensitivity is not always obvious

Most parentsare unaware that food is playing an aggravating role in their child’s condition for the following reasons

  • Children with food sensitivities often have problems with a number of food substances
  • If the offending foods are eaten regularly the symptoms or behaviours can appear to be chronic
  • Food sensitivity reactions often do not occur immediately, and can occur until up to 72 hours after eating the food or foods
  • Individuals have their own threshold of “tolerance” forvarious food substances may not react every time the food is eaten.

All these factors make identification of specific food triggers difficult for parents.

Where to start

A good starting point is to limit junk foods and packaged foods which means preparing more foods at home. By doing this you will decrease the body load of food chemicals, particularly additive food chemicals.

But for some children this will not be enough and for the best results it isnecessary to consider a wide range of food substances througha comprehensive food sensitivity investigation program. All children respond differently, so it isessentialto identify the specific dietary triggers for your child to avoid unnecessarily over-restrictive diets which cam lead to problems with nutrition.This is best done with the help of a dietitian experienced in this area.

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