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Nutritional Considerations for Children with Behavioral Issues

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

Raising children can be difficult at times and it’s not always easy to decipher whether your child is just going through a phase, an emotional time OR if there’s something deeper going on.

A sudden tantrum doesn’t automatically mean your 3-year-old has a problem with authority, and a kindergartener who doesn’t want to sit still doesn’t necessarily have an attention disorder. When it comes to understanding your child’s behavior, diagnoses and labels should really be kept to a minimum.

Far more likely than not, your young child is experiencing a temporary behavioral problem or emotional time. Many of these issues pass with time, and require a parent or caregiver’s patience, guidance and understanding. We have to remember that they are newer little human beings still learning how to interact with the world around them and build problem solving skills.

Behavioral disorders are diagnosed by or involve a pattern of disruptive behaviors in children that last for at least 6 months and cause problems in school, at home and in social situations. Nearly every child shows some of these behaviors from time to time with a wide range of severity – which may be due to:

  • A death in the family

  • A move or change in schools

  • Parents separating or divorcing

  • A more serious trauma

  • Or really anything that disrupts a safe and steady foundation

However, this behavior can become more serious in nature if not tended to.

Symptoms of Behavioral Issues can Include:

  • Inattention

  • Hyperactivity

  • Impulsivity

  • Defiant behavior

  • Argumentative attitude

  • Low self-esteem

  • Frequent temper tantrums or outbursts

  • Depression or sadness

  • Social withdrawal and isolation

  • Easily annoyed or nervous

  • Drastic changes in behavior or personality

  • Blaming others

  • Difficulty in handling frustration

  • Intensive worries or fears that impede daily activities

  • Lying or stealing

  • Not doing well in school or skipping classes

  • Fluctuations in weight

  • Changes in appetite

  • Neglecting personal hygiene and appearance

  • And even drug use or criminal activity

At Purely Rooted Nutrition & Wellness – we do NOT diagnose disorders or disease - but we work with you to help find the deeper-rooted issues that may be causing these symptoms, support you and your child’s ability to deal with stress and educate you on ways you can support healing from the source.

How Can Diet Cause Behavioral Issues?

We truly are what we eat - every single nutrient found in our food has a serious job to do:

  • Amino acids from protein foods are extremely important in supporting mental alertness and learning and are the building blocks for neurotransmitters like dopamine (for concentration and focus) and serotonin (for happiness and balanced mood).

  • Healthy fats are absolutely essential to cognitive ability – in fact 60% of the brain is made up of fat.

  • Fiber supports the health of beneficial bacteria throughout the gut – our microbiome – which boosts our immune system, supports digestion and helps balance hormones and mood.

  • Micronutrients like B vitamins are essential for a healthy, balanced mood as well as the ability to deal with stress in the first place while Magnesium is very calming for the brain and nerves.

The overall health of the body and mind starts with the food you choose to consume. This food will either support balance and promote healing or can cause disease and distress body and mind.

Let's dive in ...

1) Poor Diet

Unfortunately, in today’s world, we are losing sight of what REAL FOOD is and our grocery stores are overflowing with processed, fake foods that cause serious inflammation to the body and mind. Food additives, artificial colors, pesticides, sugars, PUFA oils, MSG, refined carbohydrates and so on have been PROVEN to cause anxiety, ADHD, mood swings, depression and are unfortunately irritating the brains of our children.

These foods negatively impact the brain, cognitive functioning and mood while increasing the risk for behavioral issues. A child cannot survive on sugar and food coloring. So, the first step is to take an honest look at your refrigerator and kitchen cabinets – is your child consuming real, whole food nutrition every single day? Or are they consuming too much junk, causing their body and mind distress?

A good rule of thumb is: if it wasn’t available for your grandparents or great grandparents then it most likely should not be consumed by you or available for your children.

Unfortunately, there are 1000s of ingredients allowed in food products in the United States that are banned in Europe. Food colorings alone (Red 40, Yellow 5 and 6) have been shown to cause allergies, asthma, hyperactivity and even cancer. It is up to us to be mindful and educate ourselves on these ingredients and choose better for ourselves and our families. Marketing companies are focused on sales, not health. Organic whole fruits and veggies, healthy fats like olives and avocados, pasture-raised grass-fed meats and wild caught fish are optimal options.

2) Lack of Nutrients

Processed, fake foods are not only irritating your child’s brain – they are lacking the nutrition your child needs to function optimally – to grow, learn, be present and have a balanced mood. Try to focus your child’s meals around 3 main nutrients: proteins, healthy fats and fiber.

Proteins: chicken, turkey, duck, beef, fish, shellfish, lamb, venison, pork, organs meats, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, nut butters, whole eggs, full fat dairy, etc.

Healthy fats: fish, shellfish, olives, olive oil, avocado or guacamole, grass-fed butter or ghee, coconut oil or yogurt, flax, chia, hemp, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, whole fat dairy, grass-fed meats, whole eggs, etc.

Fiber: fruits like berries, apples, avocados and pears, veggies like artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, leafy greens, sweet potatoes and squash, flaxseed, hemp, chia, walnuts, beans and lentils.

These foods will offer your child the nutrients they need to succeed while balancing their blood sugar throughout the day – keeping their mood and behavior more balanced. Too many carbohydrates or sugar in one sitting will send a person on a rollercoaster ride of energy and emotional ups and downs for hours. Proteins, fiber and healthy fats stabilize blood sugar. Focusing on Superfoods will help make sure your child is consuming as much nutrition as possible on a daily basis.

3) Food Sensitivities, Food Intolerance, Food Allergy

All three of these words are often thrown around interchangeably, but there are big differences between these terms, in the responses the body has to them, and how we support healing. However, all of these terms have the ability to cause inflammation and irritate the brain.

Food Allergies

These immune reactions to food are confirmed by an IgE immune response. IgE is an important part of the “first line of defense” against pathogens that enter the body. Reactions due to allergies cause acute or immediate responses (usually within minutes to hours) once a trigger food is ingested and can last 1-2 days.

Food Intolerance

Food intolerances are non-immune reactions to certain food components such as dairy, histamines and gluten that occur when a person is lacking the digestive enzyme or nutrient responsible for breaking down these food components. Food intolerances are a digestive system response rather than an immune response. They can cause general digestive discomfort, headaches, irritability and nervousness.

Food Sensitivities

Food sensitivities are IgG immune responses that can cause reactions that are delayed by hours or even days and can last up to 21 days, so it is difficult to find the culprit. These are chronic food reactions and are usually caused by an imbalance in the gastrointestinal system that is affecting the immune system. Most common is intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut”. This is when food particles get through the lining of the small intestine and into the blood stream where they do not belong, and therefore cause an immune response.

Symptoms of food sensitivities differ from person to person and can depend on the type of food eaten and/or the health of the gut lining. They can cause:

  • headaches/migraines

  • dizziness

  • difficulty sleeping

  • mood swings

  • depression or anxiety

  • unintentional weight loss or gain

  • dark under-eye circles

  • asthma

  • irregular heartbeat

  • irritable bowels

  • bloating

  • wheezing

  • runny nose or sinus problems

  • ear infections

  • food cravings

  • muscle or joint pain/stiffness

  • indigestion

  • nausea or vomiting

  • bladder control issues

  • fatigue

  • hyperactivity

  • hives or rashes

  • acne or rosacea

  • blood sugar imbalances

Fortunately, food sensitivities are not forever - working on gut healing and balancing is the key so these foods, as well as toxins and pathogens, cannot get through the lining in the first place.

So, as you can see – your child’s behavioral issues can be due to issues with a specific food. Food sensitivity testing is always recommended for behavioral issues.

4) Overall Gut Health

Gut health is important for many reasons. For one, the gut is where we absorb essential nutrients to utilize to balance mood, optimize cognitive functioning and so much more. Two, the brain and the GI system are intimately connected through the vagus nerve – we call this the gut-brain connection. A troubled GI tract can send signals to the brain; therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause (or the product) of anxiety, stress or depression.

If you notice that your child is experiencing diarrhea, constipation, gas (with odor), burping, bloating, heartburn, acid reflux or any other digestive issues – then you will want to focus on supporting and healing the gut. Gut issues can also cause:

  • brain fog

  • poor immune system

  • chronic skin conditions

  • autoimmune conditions

  • nutrient deficiencies

  • hormonal imbalances

  • chronic Fatigue

  • anxiety, depression, mood swings

  • irritability

  • cravings for sugar, breads and pastas

  • asthma and allergies

Check out Optimizing Digestion Naturally to support digestion.

5) Overgrowth of bacteria/yeast

If your child isn’t digesting food well then it can just sit in the gut, ferment and start to feed unwanted bacteria or yeast. This overgrowth of ‘opportunistic bugs’ causes in imbalance in the gut called ‘dysbiosis’. Dysbiosis can cause anxiety, depression, mood swings, lethargy, cravings for sweets, brain fog and overall irritation to the brain.

You can also have low levels of beneficial bacteria that’s constantly healing the lining of the intestinal wall, supporting digestion, optimizing the immune system and supporting mood balance. Many people don’t know that 80% of Serotonin is made in the gut and 50% of Dopamine is made in the gut.

A healthy gut = and healthy brain and mood.

We keep our gut microbiome healthy and balanced by optimizing digestion, consuming fiber-rich foods, probiotic rich foods, prebiotic rich foods, and consuming specific gut healing nutrients like omega 3s, zinc, vitamin C and antioxidants.

Fiber: Dietary fiber comes from plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains (to a lower extent). The fiber in plant foods is not digested by enzymes present in the digestive tract, but instead serves as food for microorganisms that inhabit the intestines.

Dietary fiber is usually described as “soluble” or “insoluble,” based on its ability to dissolve in water. As an example, the inner portion of an apple contains soluble fiber, whereas the peel is made of insoluble fiber.

Soluble fiber can contribute to a feeling of fullness and supports blood sugar balance as well as weight management. Soluble fiber also serves as a food source for the beneficial bacteria that inhabit the digestive tract.

The insoluble fiber in plant foods is helpful in moving waste products through the digestive tract. It also provides bulk to the stool and is beneficial in preventing constipation, hemorrhoids, and diverticuli.

It’s of utmost importance to support regular daily bowel movements because this is one of the ways your body rids itself of toxic waste. Constipation is described as less than 1 bowel movement daily.

Therapeutic Diet and Nutritional Considerations Overview:

  • Try an elimination/reintroduction diet plan to identify any potential food triggers or dietary antigens. Or do food sensitivity testing. Connect with us for guidance.

  • Avoid artificial food dyes and additives, as these can exacerbate symptoms.

  • Reduce sugary foods and sweetened beverages (Gatorade, sodas, energy drinks, fruit juices) to maintain stable blood glucose levels.

  • Focus meals around proteins, healthy fats and fiber over sugars and high carbohydrate foods. When thinking snacks – think guacamole, hummus, nut butters, nuts and seeds, homemade protein balls, beef or turkey jerky, clean lunch meat rollups, unsweetened yogurts (add real fruit), etc.

  • Optimize vitamin D levels through direct sunlight exposure and dietary intake (seafood, mushrooms, whole eggs, whole fat dairy, cod liver oil) as there is a link between vitamin D deficiency and behavioral issues.

  • Boost dietary intake of Omega 3s as there is a link between low intake and behavioral issues (seafood, walnuts, flax, chia, hemp).

  • Boost dietary magnesium, iron, and zinc rich foods as low levels are linked to behavioral issues.

    • beef

    • oysters

    • spinach

    • swiss chard

    • pumpkin seeds

    • almonds

    • quinoa

    • beet greens

    • salmon

    • dark chocolate

    • avocado

    • liver

    • pork

    • crab

    • lobster

    • whole eggs

  • Consume an amino-acid rich diet with emphasis on foods high in tyrosine and tryptophan as these amino acids are the building blocks for NTs: turkey, beef, chicken, salmon, grass-fed dairy (preferably raw), whole eggs.

  • Boost probiotic-rich foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, pickled vegetables; intake of fermented foods has been associated with reduced anxiety symptoms.

  • Consider adaptogenic herbal teas for their polyphenols and calming effects such as chamomile, holy basil or oolong. Check out Healing Herbal Tea Therapy for more options and have them either hot or over ice.

  • Anxiety is thought to be correlated with a lowered total antioxidant state. Therefore, boost overall antioxidant status in the diet through colorful fruits and veggies.

  • Feed your child protein-rich foods, especially at breakfast to help regulate blood sugar and therefore mood, cognitive function, attention, as well as reduce anxiety.

    • Ideas for protein-rich breakfasts include:

      • scrambled eggs with sautéed vegetables

      • mini crustless veggie quiches

      • smoked salmon and avocado slices

      • plain Greek or coconut yogurt with berries and walnuts

      • sweet potato hash with peppers, onions, garlic and ground turkey, sausage or ham.

      • fruit and vegetable smoothie mixed with collagen powder

Dietary Triggers & Tips for Avoidance

  • Hydrogenated, Trans Fats

    • Use healthy fats and oils (grass-fed butter or ghee, avocado, olive, coconut, etc.).

    • Make sure to use specific fats and oils for their intended purpose (that is, do not do any high-heat cooking with oils that have low smoke points. (see attached).

  • Hormones and Antibiotics

    • Buy organic, pasture-raised, free-range meats and eggs.

    • Avoid factory farmed meats.

  • Mercury

    • Avoid high-mercury fish (e.g., king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, swordfish, tilefish, tuna).

  • Sugar and Refined Starches

    • Limit sugar and replace it with natural sugar alternatives, such as raw honey, blackstrap molasses, maple syrup, monk fruit or pure organic stevia.

    • Replace refined starches with whole grains and potatoes (quinoa, non-GMO oats, rice, sweet potatoes).

    • Limit highly processed foods (cereals, pastries, bagels, frozen meals).

  • Allergenic Foods

    • Eliminate allergenic foods and rotate foods to which you or your child is sensitive.

    • Consider an elimination diet with a food reintroduction protocol or food sensitivity testing.

  • Excitotoxins

    • Avoid caffeine, monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial sweeteners, food dyes, nitrites, sulfites, and propionates.

  • Plastics

    • Do not microwave food in plastic or Styrofoam containers

    • Do not store food in plastic

    • Avoid plastic water bottles, especially their reuse

  • Other

    • Drink plenty of filtered water

    • Eat fermented foods (coconut kefir, sauerkraut, etc.)

    • Maximize intake of antioxidants, flavonoids, and other phytonutrients. See attached.

At the end of the day - serving your child nutrient dense whole foods, avoiding toxic food additives and utilizing gut healing foods will give your child the building blocks they need to focus, be present, deal with stress and support a balanced mood.

Here are some handouts that may be helpful:

A Guide to Cooking with Fats and Oils
Download PDF • 95KB
Download PDF • 472KB
Download PDF • 474KB
Download PDF • 705KB

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