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Diet and Attention- What's the Connection?

Fad diets- you can't spend more than 10 minutes browsing the web without seeing something about a fad diet these days. We've all heard of them - Paleo, GAPS, Gluten-Free, grapefruit and eggs, gluten-free-casein-free, etc. We've all heard of the benefits of these diets for adults- weight loss being the primary goal here.
 
But what happens when you put your child on one of these diets?
 
For children and adults who suffer from celiac disease, eliminating gluten from your diet is of paramount importance to prevent immune damage to the body. However, research suggests that eliminating gluten from your diet if you do NOT have celiac disease might not be a great idea, primarily because it can actually cause gluten sensitivity and a reduced ability for your body to process the gluten molecule, which is a protein, appropriately. This can last many years, and can even cause hospitalization if you were to suddenly flood your body with gluten. This is the hallmark of most fad diets; health problems arising from a sustained period of nutritional deficiency or, in some cases, too much of one or several nutrients. Although some children and adults who are on the Autism Spectrum have seen a marked improvement in behavior and emotional problems after starting a gluten-free-casein-free diet, these sorts of changes really need to be evaluated by a physician prior to starting the diet.
 
Most people, however, wouldn't dream of putting their young children on a strict paleo or severe caloric reduction diet. Children NEED calories to help support their growing bodies and minds. This one of the basic tenants behind the food stamp (WIC) program and Head Start programs; these programs provide basic nutrition for people living below the poverty line to help give children a stronger start in life. Poor nutrition from an early age can follow you for the rest of your life. Inadequate nutrition and caloric intake during infancy can result in fewer neural connections in the brain. Fortunately, the plasticity of children's brains CAN overcome this if intervention is provided at an early age.
 
So, what happens when our food, assumed to be safe and healthy, has been laced with artificial preservatives and additives? A growing body of research is starting to support the idea that many of these additives could be at least partially responsible for problems with attention and concentration in children- namely, ADD and ADHD.
 
Just this morning within a two-hour time period, I've seen TWO articles regarding food additives and health problems crop up in my Facebook news feed. The first was regarding the addition of BHT, or Butylated Hydroxytoluene, in Kellog's Rice Crispies cereal. BHT has been linked to cancer, asthma, and behavioral problems in children. Yet, families around the country start their day with a big bowl of the stuff.
 
The second article was a research summary from the Journal of Hematology & Thromboembolic Diseases, linking GMO foods to leukemia, caused by a toxin that is genetically engineered into the food for pest control in GMO foods. Poor attention and cognition is one thing, certainly not a great problem to have by any means, but leukemia from eating corn? 
 
We know that certain food dyes, red dyes in particular, have been linked to ADHD. Food research is beginning to unravel some of the effects of the long list of other additives that are commonly used in our food supply. Food news is becoming big news, and for good reason. The US is one of the few industrialized nations left that allows for GMO foods to be on grocery store shelves, with or without labeling. At some point, you have to ask yourself- why is that? Is it that all of Europe is on the same 'fad wagon,' or is it that those nations have felt that it's better to be safe than sorry? Or is it that political corruption in the US has led to unsafe products on our grocery store shelves?
 
No matter what the reason for this may be, as a private tutor and teacher, I've noticed that the children who are given more sugar do not do as well in school. The children who come to school with a lunchbox stuffed with pre-packaged foods high in sugar, food coloring, and empty calories, struggle more in school. When I worked in a Special Education classroom, the students who had the most behavioral problems frequently were eating pre-packaged foods, as opposed to carrot sticks, sandwiches, and fresh fruit. Children who come to school with lunch boxes containing healthier food options did not struggle as much with focus and attention in class, and I saw fewer behavioral problems from those students. While this is purely anecdotal, (and would seem to be common sense), research does support this idea. Even people who suffer from chronic illnesses report that changing their diet to include more fruits and vegetables (and presumably, fewer processed foods), results in an improvement in symptoms.
 
Whatever the reason, I highly encourage my students (and their parents) to stick with a healthy diet- whatever that might mean for that person. If you are considering a dietary change for you child, consult with your pediatrician first. And in the meantime, we all need to work together for healthier, safer food choices in this country. We need to work together to eliminate 'food deserts' in our cities. Food does matter. Good health matters in school.