Tips for Eliminating Foods That May Worsen Behavioral Issues in Kids

foster care, this is foster care, elaina avalos, natural remedies, ADHD

If you have a child that struggles with ADHD or other complex diagnoses – particularly if they experienced trauma at any point, it can feel very lonely. Not only is it isolating because people do not understand and lack compassion, but the medical profession sometimes seems to work at cross purposes. I sometimes wonder if medicine these days actually wants healed and whole patients . . . but that’s another story.

As a parent, I think you know in your gut what works and doesn’t work. Or, you may be partially {or completely} uncomfortable with the solutions being presented to you when they miss, or even ignore, who our children are as individuals. We are whole persons. Our wellness isn’t just a medical diagnosis.

While there may be a number of things that work for your family, there are a few things that helped my foster son – particularly with hyperactivity and anxiety. There was a drastic difference in his hyperactivity, acting out, and in his ability to self-regulate after we {he was an active partner in making these changes} made changes to his diet.

I wanted to share some of those things with you for today’s Wellness Wednesday post. This week I wanted to talk about dietary changes. Next week, I’ll cover some additional helps we put into place.

Here are my tips for eliminating foods that may worsen behavioral issues in kids.

This is hard, yo – particularly for foster parents out there who may have a child enter your home that has food insecurity issues or is accustomed to junk food {also very inexpensive and easy to get a hold of for families struggling with poverty}.

But, the differences between my foster son when we worked hard on our diet and when I was not disciplined, was tremendous. Notice that I said when I was not disciplined.

“Some of the studies are difficult or imperfect in that they don’t always tease out specific chemicals in isolation,” he says. “But there is this body of literature that does suggest that food colorings are not as benign as people have been led to believe.”

– Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York

Remove artificial colors completely. If you absolutely cannot fathom removing all artificial colors, I would definitely recommend eliminating red dye 40. I know what you’re thinking – it’s too time consuming. It is at first – especially if you work outside the home or are a single parent as I was. But once you’ve done your research on alternatives and spend time reading labels, you generally know what products to avoid and what products are dye free. Secondly, you will sometimes feel like a jerk parent when you have to continually say “no” to those junk food favorites.

But when you see the differences in your child, it is worth the work to find alternatives. If your child is old enough, talk to them about the changes and ask for their help in finding foods in the store that they would like, that are also dye free. My foster son became a mini expert in dye free foods. And while we had our moments when he wanted those regular Doritos, he did a good job because he was engaged in the decision making process, as often as our schedule allowed for it.

Find foods that you can be less restrictive with & give your child freedom to eat when he/she wants to. I know that might not sit right with a lot of parents. But I honestly believe it helps. And while my foster son also had food insecurity issues, I think there was something empowering for him – knowing that while there were some things he couldn’t eat, he wasn’t restricted in every little thing. He felt some sense of independence and control when the changes were very new for him.

I found foods that were protein rich, higher in fiber, or fruit – that were in his own “snack baskets” in the refrigerator or pantry. Generally speaking, I didn’t restrict the food in those baskets – including before dinner. Again, I know that may not work in your home. But if you have a child that is constantly burning energy due to hyperactivity {mine was}, and/or has food insecurity issues, is it really going to hurt? My kiddo’s appetite for dinner wasn’t dented from his healthy snacking after school. Like not even a little.


Slightly off topic – if you are a foster parent and your child has major food insecurity issues, consider choosing one type of food that you allow your child to keep bedside as comfort. We chose granola/fiber type bars {be aware of sugar content}. He had one snack before bed {usually string cheese while we read} and then a fiber bar was left on this bedside table.

Providing him a sense of control about what he could eat, made a huge difference once I removed certain things from this diet. His baskets had fruit {strawberries & blueberries were his favorite}, string cheese, Mini Babybel cheese {he really loved these!}, no-sugar apple sauce, no-dye crackers, etc. No dye fruit leathers, fruit snacks, etc., are much more common now.

Here are a few examples of kiddo-friendly “junk” food, which also helps with the transition:

You can even find dye free cake mixes, frostings, and sprinkles now. There are candy companies that exist specifically to eliminate chemical junk in candy. Watkins sells a line of food coloring made with vegetables and spices. The alternatives are out there!

Snacks in our refrigerator and pantry were in these baskets:

I heart them.

Finally, I also cut out as much sugar as I could. I didn’t worry too much about sugar from natural sources. Nor did I eliminate it totally. But I did my best to eliminate as much refined white sugar and high fructose corn syrup as much as possible.

Cereal – I tried to stick to 7 grams of sugar {or less}. We would sometimes have pancakes and waffles, but used maple syrup – which has a lower glycemic index. My primary goal was for his breakfasts to be as high in protein as possible. I didn’t always win that battle. But, it was the goal.

As a single mom, I did aim for convenience in this area. We had breakfast bowls, breakfast sandwiches with eggs & cheese, high protein shakes, and protein bars. But being that he was always hungry – he usually ate at home and then took something in the car with him. His “car snack” was usually fruit, the shake, or a protein bar if he didn’t have those at breakfast.

Between making the dietary changes and giving my son back some of the control he’d lost in life and in the diet changes, it made for a more peaceful home. But more importantly, my foster son felt more in control of his emotions, actions, and choices.

Ultimately, it will take some experimenting to make it work best for you. But if you haven’t considered adjusting your child’s diet as you search for answers about what to do to help them – it’s worth a shot. Not only is it worth an attempt if you’re at your wit’s end, but ultimately, no one is more focused on your child’s wellness as you are. Your doctor isn’t likely to make suggestions about changing your child’s diet. They probably don’t for you either. It doesn’t mean that our diet can’t impact our emotional well being as well as our physical health. As I said earlier, we are whole persons – what we put into our body absolutely can impact our emotional and mental well being. It doesn’t just pack on the pounds when we eat unhealthy {we don’t dispute this fact, do we?}. Food is what our bodies use to function. Giving our bodies the best possible foods can only help . . .

Additional note: I wanted to eliminate gluten too {I have been gluten free since 2009}. I had a sense it might help him. But that was a bridge too far between our schedule, life as a single mom, and the drastic nature of that change. However, if you have a little more time to work with, I highly recommend Gluten Free on a Shoestring! She has a wealth of information and incredible gluten free recipes she’s developed since her son was diagnosed with Celiac disease. She even has a recipe for gluten free “Twix bars.” To read about one family’s experience with a gluten free diet and ADHD, read this article.