Is Food Intolerance Causing Your Child's Bad Behavior?

Oppositional defiance disorder (ODD) is a common problem for children across the United States. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests that up to 16 percent of children and adolescents suffer from the condition. Scientists don't fully understand what causes ODD, but new research suggests that food intolerance may play a significant role. Learn more about this behavioral disorder, and find out how your child's diet may worsen his or her symptoms.

How childhood behavioral problems have changed

In the 1940s, American teachers reported that the biggest behavioral problems in the classroom included chewing gum, talking out of turn and running in the hall. Fifty years later, the list is very different, and problems like drug use, assault and ADHD dominate the list. In that time, various studies have shown that diet plays an increasingly important role in a child's upbringing, particularly since processed foods became more common in American shopping baskets.

Studies have linked genetics, smoking, alcohol abuse, lead pollution and brain injuries to behavioral problems, and it's clear it is impossible to isolate one issue as the driving force behind the increase in the disorder. Some people believe that excessive refined sugar in a child's diet can cause behavioral problems, but several studies have shown that this does not make any difference. That aside, other research suggests that food additives could lead to disorders like ODD.

The symptoms of ODD

ODD symptoms generally start around age 8, and children or adolescents with the condition normally start to behave badly around people they know well, such as teachers, parents or caregivers. Children with ODD are not just naughty. ODD symptoms are disruptive in the classroom and at home, and can sometimes put other children at risk.

The most common ODD symptoms include:

  • Losing your temper
  • Arguing and or refusing to follow instructions or rules
  • Anger issues, leading to vindictive behaviour
  • Purposefully trying to annoy other people
  • Blaming other people for your own mistakes

Research shows that certain food additives can easily affect children. One study showed that children given drinks high in artificial food colorings like Tartrazine, Carmoisine and Sunset Yellow demonstrated several negative behavioral problems.

The role of salicylates

Crucially, it is not just artificial food additives that can cause behavioral problems. Salicylates are chemicals that occur naturally in many plants, where they act as natural pesticides. These chemicals then naturally find their way into the foods your children eat. Salicylate sensitivity or intolerance is surprisingly common in children and adults.

Salicylate intolerance is common in:

  • Adults with asthma
  • People with other food allergies
  • Many people with irritable bowel syndrome
  • Children with behavioral problems

To complicate things further, you'll find salicylates in many foods that doctors encourage as part of a healthy diet. Fruit and vegetables are naturally high in these chemicals. Some drugs are also high in salicylates. For example, aspirin is a salicylate and can cause a number of side effects.               

Identifying the problem

The good news is that ODD symptoms respond well when you make the right dietary changes. In the first instance, parents should look for the signs of food intolerance. These include eczema, itchy skin, asthma and headaches, as well as sleep disturbance, irritability and other behavioral issues. It's important to consult an allergy doctor before taking further action, to eliminate other health problems or allergies.

Many doctors will recommend that you try a food elimination diet with your children. As part of this process, you will record every meal and snack that your children eat, as well as details of any problems or symptoms you saw afterwards. This process can help you find problematic food types and may highlight either artificial or natural food additives that trigger the problem.

Scientists now strongly believe that diet is one of the biggest influences on a child's behavior.  Parents can often see dramatic results in kids with ODD and other disorders, by identifying and eliminating artificial or natural food additives that cause problems.