Food Moods

By Ellen Notbohm

Those of us around at the dawn of the computer-age remember vividly the excitement created by machines that seemed to function as high-performance brains, computing calculations at exponentially fast rates. These mechanical brains certainly seemed smarter—and sometimes, just as temperamental.

Nevertheless, these infallible new brains were as fallible as the real brains that programmed them. Incorrect data inputs led to people complaining 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 computer’s potential, it 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. Food serves as the power source our brains–our true ‘personal computers’–depend upon. We are, in fact, what we eat—or what we neglect to eat. The quality of that fuel affects the output—something commonly referred to as ‘behavior,’ 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 always tells us something about how they are experiencing their environment, but they may be years away from self-identifying the causes of their behavior. In the meantime, adults often over-estimate their ability to verbalize any trouble. 

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 not synonymous. An allergy includes 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, though are more serious (including fatal reaction). 

Incidence of food allergies have increased sharply in the last 10 to 20 years, as much as double by some estimates. One medical science 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.

Food sensitivity involves a drug-like reaction to an 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.

Both food allergies and food sensitivities can trigger difficult or belligerent behavior in children. The list of possible offending substances is endless with common culprits on page 26.

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.” 

Poor overall nutrition.

If a child’s diet includes low nutritional value, his brain may be literally starving, acutely affecting his behavior. The link between nutrition and behavior is being tested as more convenience ‘food products’ replace actual food in its original form. 

In the provocative documentary Supersize Me, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock visits a so-called behavioral high school in Appleton, WI whose staff saw problem behaviors decline dramatically after converting their school lunch program from processed foods to whole, fresh foods. 

Running on empty.

If behavior deteriorates early in the day, could skipping breakfast be the culprit? Children’s brains are hungry in the morning; and 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, and has been shown to improve children’s overall food choices during the rest of the day. 


Without adequate hydration, a child can become lethargic, cranky and unfocused. However, 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. 

Water works best as a hydrator and thirst quencher. Change habits slowly. If your child is drinking soda every day, start by eliminating one serving per day.

Voicing pain through behavior.

Don’t overestimate your child’s capability to communicate gastrointestinal problems. A child’s ability to identify cause and effect develops gradually throughout 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) could require ongoing medical supervision.

As spell-checking, error-detecting computers developed throughout 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 a severe 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.

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05 Aug 2016

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