Behavioural problems and food

When giving nutritional advice, I usually like to begin on a positive note and suggest wholesome foods that people can add to their diet rather than immediately list all the no-no’s they should avoid. However, in the case of behavioural disorders, I am afraid my attitude is categorical. Some foods must be struck off the list, and some potentially offending foods should be omitted for a while to assess their effect; there is just no two ways about it. The brain, the control centre which governs our behaviour, should only be fed premium food to function optimally. Although certain individuals may not be affected by eating damaging foods (I doubt such individuals exist, but this is not the place to debate it), those who clearly suffer from behavioural problems should examine their menu very carefully. After all, your brain is what you are and you are what you eat. Even if changing your eating patterns does not solve your problem entirely, it is guaranteed to have a beneficial effect and to pave the way to a calmer, more balanced you.

So what would I remove from the menu if my child had a behavioural problem?

First and foremost, hydrogenated (trans-) fats. Over the last 20 years an increasing body of research has suggested that an imbalance of fatty acids in the diet is a strong contributing factor to learning and behavioural difficulties. A large part of your brain and nervous system is made of fatty tissue, and here, too, it’s the quality of fat that makes the difference. If damaged fats is what your brain is fed, then damaged fats are what it will be made of, pure and simple. Personally I believe that the widespread use of low quality, chemically treated, cheap hydrogenated fats in processed and convenience food shares a great deal of the blame for the phenomenal rise in the last 2 decades in behavioural difficulties and learning disorders.

None of us is immune to the dangerous effects of trans fats. Not only do they not contribute the beneficial fatty acids so needed for the proper functioning of our body and brain, they also positively damage them. Hydrogenated fats have been proven to be implicated with heart disease, stroke and cancer, and there is every reason to suspect that they strongly contribute to dyslexia, learning difficulties and autism. Those who already have a condition should be three times as careful. Cheap, mutant food makes for inferior, mutant performance.

What should you do if you want to avoid trans fats? Stop buying processed and convenience foods and snacks (including the favourites, such as crisps, pizza and fries). If you want ready made food, buy organic or from a health store, where you can be sure the use of such fats is disallowed. Cook at home using organic, cold pressed oils – I’d use olive or safflower oil for heating and other oils in salads or at the end of cooking. If it sounds radical, it’s because it should be. The greater your problem, the more radical the approach.

Following closely in the footsteps of trans fats is sugar. The brain’s only fuel is glucose, which it requires in continuous, steady supply (see my article on ‘hypoglycaemia’). Sugar is a source of pure glucose with nothing added, so eating sugar is like having a strong shot of glucose directly into the brain. You reach a high quickly, the brain feasts for a short while, but as is the nature of things, highs are followed by unpleasant lows, which is when you need another quick sugary fix, and so on and so forth. If this sounds like a drug addiction, it’s because it is. Sugar is a drug with a very strong effect, particularly on susceptible individuals. The effects can range from tiredness and irritability to lack of concentration, nervousness, shakes, anxiety, manic and hyperactive behaviour through to sheer violence.

If you or your child suffer from behavioural problems, I’d start reading labels carefully and avoid sugar, including in disguised forms, as much as is humanly possible. This means, plain and simply, cutting down big way on most commercially prepared foods and snacks. We can’t live without the sweet stuff though, so go for the gentler versions – fruit, dried fruit, diluted fresh juices and home made treats made with whole foods and alternative, natural sweeteners.

Third on the list of ‘best avoided’ are additives. Currently there are over 500 additives in the food chain, and whilst 80 or so may be natural and plant-derived, most are not. Additives are chemical, lab-created substances which do not exist in the natural world, therefore they are a puzzle to the body. Some of these additives (in particular some food colourings) which have been popular for decades, have in recent years been banned due to their suspected effect on behaviour and hyperactivity levels in children. It makes simple common sense that if you regularly ingest unnatural, man-made chemicals which the body cannot recognise and does not know what to do with, you are looking for trouble. If these foreign substances end up, for example, deposited in the fatty membrane of the nervous system cells, the road from there to behavioural problems is not far. Indeed, additives have been closely linked to hyperactivity, insomnia and ADHD.

To reduce additives in your diet, go natural – yes, guys, time to say it out loud, cook fresh, at home, from scratch. If you want to make shortcuts (fair enough, given our hectic pace of life), make them additive-free. Shop for fresh foods and groceries, and buy off the shelf products only after you’ve read the labels and made sure you understand what you read. If you don’t know what you’re ingesting, don’t buy it. Offer the kids healthier snacks and treats, home made or health store bought; make junk food a rarity rather than a rule.

A fourth culprit in making the brain go yo-yo are stimulants, caffeine and sugar being two of the prominent ones. You may not think your child consumes caffeine, but if he or she consumes carbonated drinks regularly, enjoys certain energy drinks or a nice cup of coffee a day, loves certain chewing gums or, more commonly, can’t do without chocolate, then watch out. As a weekly treat, stimulants may pass, but much to the regret of most, they have no place in a daily, healthy diet, certainly not if your child’s behaviour is problematic. Anxiety, panic attacks, disturbed sleep and manic behaviour are a tall price to pay for a moment’s pleasure.

My last message is, don’t wait for your child to develop behavioural problems in order to make these changes. You may not need to be as strict as someone suffering from a condition, but you’d do both yourself and your child a great favour if you generally moved in this direction. Everyone benefits from good nutrition.

© Vardit Kohn, July 2005.   No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written consent.

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