Kids, Food and Behavior: 5 Eating Tips for Better Relationships

Like all parents, you probably struggle at times with your child’s behavior.  Parents often ask me, "What are some easy dietary changes I can make to help improve my child’s moods and behaviors?"

Parents intuitively understand that nutrition holds the key to a child’s health and sense of well-being, but only recently have studies shown us glimpses of how foods work. As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I have seen almost miraculous changes in children’s behaviors with just a few simple diet interventions.  These are five of my all-time favorites:

Feed your child a brain-boosting breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. After a night of fasting, blood sugars are at their ebb. A child’s brain depends on good fuel to keep it going. Skipping breakfast interferes with concentration for morning classes, and the moodiness and irritability that accompanies low blood sugar makes it hard for kids to be agreeable with classmates and teachers. A poor substitute for nourishment, boxed cereals often contribute to the type of mid morning letdown that provokes behavior problems and task reluctance at school and at home, particularly when combined with fat-free or low fat milk. On the other hand, a well-balanced breakfast that includes brain-boosting foods with natural proteins and fats, like eggs and fish, can jumpstart a child’s social skills and academic performance. It’s a great way to start the day!

Kick out refined carbohydrates.
All carbohydrates are not created equal. For kids (and adults!), the “bad actors” are refined carbohydrates like white sugar, commercially processed grains (even whole wheat), fruit juice (yes, you read that correctly) and high fructose corn syrup. These carbohydrates, so common in the Standard American Diet (SAD), are quickly and easily digested.  

You may be surprised to learn about the negative effects of commercially processed grains.  According to Harvard researcher Dr. David Ludwig, "In the last 50 years, the extent of processing has increased so much that prepared breakfast cereals--even without added sugar--act exactly like sugar itself …
As far as our hormones and metabolism are concerned, there's no difference between a bowl of unsweetened corn flakes and a bowl of table sugar. Starch is 100-percent glucose [table sugar is half glucose, half fructose] and our bodies can digest it into sugar instantly."
A meal of refined carbohydrates floods the bloodstream with sugar that rapidly disappears as it is used for fuel and fat storage. Children eating lots of refined carbohydrates experience blood sugar peaks and valleys, with rollercoaster moods. For smoother sailing, shop the perimeter of the store to find vegetables, meats, dairy and whole fruits.  Kick out sugars, corn syrups, boxed cereals, ice cream, candy, soft drinks and fruit juices (yes, you read that right, 100% fruit juice is not a health drink!).

Hold the colorings and preservatives. For decades, parents complained to pediatricians that food colorings in foods and confections (brightly colored candies, e.g.) changed the way their children behaved, but only recently has there been scientific data to support their complaints. In 2007 (please see my 7/19/10 post for details--Dr. Ann), a study showed that normal children ages 3 through 9 became hyperactive when fed a mixture of food colorings and a common preservative (sodium benzoate). This startling finding in normal children raised special concerns for all kids, and particularly those with behavior problems. For general health and behavior, eliminating food colorings and preservatives can truly brighten your child’s day.

Make meals a balancing act.
Kids thrive on balance and variety. Make sure they eat wholesome proteins, non-starchy vegetables and some natural fats (virgin coconut oil, meat fats and/or organic butter, for example), at every meal. Children’s bodies and especially their brains require dietary fats. The demands of energy, growth and development mean children use fats faster than adults do.  Children should not be subjected to low-fat diets.

Meals should be naturally bright, appealing and even festive. It’s not difficult to get children to eat vegetables when they look fun and interesting.  Your blender can hide leafy green veggies in soups, dips and omelets.  As in the popular Dr. Seuss book, serving green eggs, with or without ham, is a novel way to get your child's attention.  

Balanced meals should be the rule, and not the exception.  One way to balance a meal is to divide the dinner plate into thirds. Place colorful salads and/or fresh or frozen cooked non-starchy vegetables on one part of the plate, proteins with natural fats such as meat, fish, poultry and eggs on the second part of the plate.  The third part of the plate can bring surprises to the dinner table.  It can contain something new, a vegetable, meat or fruit your child helped you pick out at the supermarket.  This keeps meals exciting, and your child's involvement will make him or her inclined to try new foods.

The family that eats together…
Eat with your children. Research shows that kids who eat with their parents are less likely to develop disordered eating habits, more likely to enjoy academic success, less likely to have emotional problems, and less likely to have behavior problems outside of the home. The family meal is an opportunity for all members to be heard and acknowledged, to relax, share stories and connect with one another.  And it’s a unique opportunity for you to practice and model good eating habits for your children’s lifetime. 

Will it work?  Practice these five tips for a week or two, and see what happens!