We are, quite literally, what we eat

by Ellen Notbohm

Those of us who were around at the dawn of the computer age remember vividly the excitement and wonder created by machines that seemed to function as high-performance brains. They performed calculation tasks exponentially faster than our own brains and had phenomenal memory. They certainly seemed smarter – and sometimes, just as temperamental.

It didn’t take long to discover that these infallible new brains were every bit as fallible as the real brains that programmed and used them. We would input data incorrectly and then complain that the computer didn’t work. As we began to understand this disconnect, a new phrase entered our lexicon:  GIGO. Garbage in, garbage out. No matter how wondrous the potential of the computer, it will not – cannot – create good output from bad input.

Science has yet to synthesize anything with potential as limitless as the human brain. Just like the computer, the quality of its output will be only as good as the input. Garbage in, garbage out. Food is the power source upon which our brains, our true ‘personal computers’ depend. We are, in fact, what we eat – or what we neglect to eat. The quality of that fuel (or lack thereof) affects the output – something we commonly refer to as ‘behavior.’

Behavior is always a form of communication. In adults, we assume that at least some behavior is deliberate. In children, the line is much less clear. Their behavior is always telling us something about how they are experiencing their environment, but they may be years away from being able to self-identify the causes of their behavior. In the meantime, we adults often over-estimate their ability to verbalize what the trouble is. So we see “behavior” and we assume it is willful.

We assume too much, and in doing so, we neglect the more difficult search for the source of our children’s behavior and moods. That search frequently leads to food.

Food allergies and food sensitivities are sometimes used in the same breath, but they are not the same thing. An allergy is a disordered immune-system response. Even a trace amount of the allergen will trigger an allergic response. Food allergies affect far fewer people than food sensitivities, but they are more serious (up to an including fatal reaction). Incidence of food allergies have risen sharply in the last 10 – 20 years, as much as double by some estimates. Medical science is not sure why, but one theory holds that, with the near-elimination of parasitic diseases in developed countries, the “mast” cells of the immune system look for something else to attack. Formerly harmless food proteins become targets.

A food sensitivity is a drug-like reaction to a substance, usually based on the amount or degree of exposure to the offending substance. For instance, two red jellybeans may incite hyperactive or aggressive behavior in one child, whereas another may be able to tolerate a handful.

There is plenty of evidence that both food allergies and food sensitivities can cause difficult or belligerent behavior in children. The list of possible offending substances is endless here are some of the common culprits:

Food allergy triggers
Eggs, nuts, dairy products, wheat, corn, soy, fish, shellfish, tomatoes, citrus, strawberries.

Food sensitivity triggers
Food dyes, preservatives and other additives such as MSG (monosodium glutamate), dairy products, processed carbohydrates such as white flour and white sugar, citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, chocolate, eggs.

Food additives in particular are worth some very sober thought. In his article The Top Ten Things Food Companies Don’t Want You to Know, author Mike Adams makes the audacious statement that “ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) in children is caused almost entirely by the consumption of processed food ingredients such as artificial colors and refined carbohydrates. Eighty percent of so-called ADHD children who are taken off processed foods are cured of ADHD in two weeks.” The numbers may be debatable but the concept is not. In my own experience, we watched my son’s ‘autistic behaviors’ all but vanish when we removed preservatives, food dyes and white flour from his diet.

How to ferret out a food allergy or sensitivity. An elimination diet is the least invasive (and least expensive) method of attempting to address ‘food moods.’ Elimination diets can be difficult, because by definition you are taking away a food that your child enjoys. In order that your efforts not be in vain, use these guidelines:

  • Keep a food diary of everything your child eats for a few days, making note of times when behaviors exhibit. For instance, if you begin to see a pattern of difficult behavior after the lunchtime peanut butter sandwich, you might begin by eliminating wheat or nuts from your child’s diet for two weeks.
  • Eliminate only one substance at a time. If you ax more than one food at a time, you have no way of knowing which one is the culprit.
  • Phase the food out slowly. A kamikaze-style wipeout of your child’s favorite foods is a guaranteed recipe for failure. If your child loves cheese and ice cream, start by decreasing the frequency per week, then per day until eliminated.
  • Once the elimination has been achieved, record results for at least two weeks in order to get a complete picture how the elimination affects the full range of your child’s activities and biorhythms.
  • Did behaviors diminish after elimination of the food? Test your results by re-introducing a small amount of the food, gradually increasing the “dose,” seeing if the behavior returns.

Poor overall nutrition. A child may be eating a lot, but if it is of low nutritive value, his brain may be literally starving, acutely affecting his behavior.

The link between nutrition and behavior has been sorely and increasingly tested over the past few decades as more and more so-called convenience ‘food products’ have replaced actual food in its original form. In the provocative documentary Supersize Me, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock visits a so-called behavioral high school in Appleton, Wisconsin whose staff saw problem behaviors decline dramatically after converting their school lunch program from processed foods to whole, fresh foods. Further result was an increase in attendance and academic achievement.

An easy way to improve nutrition is to become conscious of eating foods closer to their original condition. Strive for the lower end of the food chain.

Running on empty. If the behavior is deteriorating early in the day, could skipping breakfast be the culprit? Children’s brains are hungry in the morning, whether they recognize it or not; there is overwhelming evidence that children who eat breakfast do significantly better in school than those who do not. The re-fueling of the brain after the long night’s fast enhances energy and focus, irritability and anxiety, and has been shown to improve children’s overall food choices during the rest of the day. Teacher Leah Moorefield’s essay, The Importance of Breakfast, paints a persuasive portrait of how her own childhood was transformed when her father began enforcing breakfast. She also presents a compelling picture of what she sees in her own classroom: “I watch children hit the ‘no-breakfast abyss’ every day. I am almost never wrong about this… As they struggle to keep their eyes open, I quietly ask them about their morning meal. I keep a large stash of granola bars on hand to feed them.”

Children frequently resist breakfast for reasons that are more a result of our own food attitudes that anything else.  (For further reading, ask for a reprint of Ellen’s “Winning the Breakfast Wars.”)

Thirst. Without adequate hydration, a child can become lethargic, cranky and unable to focus. But fluid consumption should not come at cross-purposes: soda and artificially flavored drinks composed mainly of sugar and food dye may address one problem while creating another. Glucose slows the speed at which the stomach empties its contents, so sugared drinks can actually contribute to thirst by delaying the movement and absorption of fluid into the intestine.

Plain old water is without compare as a hydrator and thirst quencher. Kids may consider water “boring,” so as with food, change habits slowly. If your child is drinking soda every day, start by eliminating one serving per day and work your way down to where it’s a special-occasion treat.

Voicing pain through behavior. Don’t overestimate your child’s ability to communicate gastrointestinal problems. Children aren’t born with the ability to identify cause and effect; it develops gradually over childhood. Your child may be voicing physical pain through extreme behavior. Acid reflux (heartburn) can cause esophageal or abdominal pain and create sleep disruption. Constipation, diarrhea, chronic flatulence, ear infections, tooth and mouth pain can all be brought on by certain foods. More serious illnesses such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) require ongoing medical supervision.

As spell-checking, error-detecting computers developed over the years, the term GIGO faded from use. But in its place came an equally dangerous reiteration: GIGO meaning garbage in, gospel out. It’s an acerbic warning that we should not accept our computer’s output at face value as truth. The same goes for your child’s behavior. The truth may be, quite literally, in the pudding.


©2007 Ellen Notbohm. Please contact the author for permission to reproduce in any way, including re-posting on the Internet.

Originally published in The Village Family magazine, February-March 2007