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A natural foods diet cures teenagers’ behavior problems

by Randall Neustaedter OMD

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Clinicians have been screaming about the effect of food on behavior and attention for the past 30 years. Long ago Feingold and Conners (of the Conners’ Attention Rating Scales) encouraged parents to delete the sugar, refined flour, and artificial chemicals from kids’ diets. The value of this program was dramatically demonstrated at a small school for problem teens in Appleton, Wisconsin. The Appleton Central Alternative High School was established in 1996 for troubled kids who could not attend traditional high school because of discipline problems. Things were so bad at Appleton that a police officer was stationed full time at the school to prevent violence and weapons violations.

Then the owners of Healthy Ovens Bakery donated $100,000 over five years to build a kitchen and hire a staff to provide a natural foods breakfast and lunch at the school, and everything changed. After the food program was initiated the principal observed that students were calm, well-behaved, more receptive to learning, and happier. The school had no dropouts, no expulsions, no drug or weapons incidence, and no suicides in the three years since the program started.

What was the plan that achieved these drastic results? Soda, candy, chips, and chemically-processed food items are absolutely prohibited in the school building. Meals provide an array of fresh produce, whole grains, and oven-baked entrees. Breakfast consists of an energy drink (made daily with fresh whole fruit, juices and a flax-based powder), whole grain bread, bagels, and muffins (with no chemical preservatives); granola; fresh peanut butter; whole fresh fruit, and milk. For lunch students have access to a fresh salad bar with dark green lettuce and hot entrees that may include an oven-baked chicken patty with broccoli almandine rice; turkey in gravy with oven-mashed potatoes and corn; or BBQ meatballs made from ground turkey with baked potato wedges.

Appleton, Wisconsin Healthy Foods Program: “Impact of Fresh, Healthy Foods on Learning and Behavior,” 2002, A video of the program is available from Natural Ovens at www.naturalovens.com, (800-558-3535) for $10.

Omega-3 fats improve attention, behavior, and intelligence

Several studies have demonstrated that children with lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their bloodstream have significantly more behavioral problems,temper tantrums, and learning, health, and sleep problems thando those children with high proportions of those fatty acids. In a similar study, 53 children with ADHD had significantly lower proportions of key fatty acids (AA, EPA, and DHA) in their blood than did 43 control subjects. Children with lower omega-3 levels had lower behavioral assessmentscores (Conners’ Parent Rating Scale) and teacher scores ofacademic abilities.

The researchers speculated that an inefficient conversion of polyunsaturated fatty acids to AA and DHA may have been a significant factor in the lower levels of those fats in ADHD children. In one study, the researchers showed that children with ADHD were breast-fed less oftenas infants than were the control children. They assume that the high levels of DHA in breast milk could be responsible for better performance later in life since infants are inefficient at converting polyunsaturated fats from other sources into the valuable omega-3 fat DHA that is essential for brain development. Early childhood breast-feedinghas been associated with higher intelligence and high school attainmentin later childhood, and in 15 and 18 year-olds. A study published in 2002 also showed a significant association between intelligence levels in adults and the duration of their breastfeeding as infants.

How to improve attention and behavior

The take home message from these reports is to feed your children natural foods (whole grains, fruits, and vegetables). Eliminate refined sugar and chemicals from the diet. Avoid polyunsaturated oils (corn, safflower, canola, etc.) and partially hydrogenated oils (in most cookies, chips, and crackers).

Give children an omega-3 supplement in the form of cod liver oil (1 tspn per 50 lbs of body weight) or a high DHA fish oil or Neuromins algae capsule (100-250 mg DHA). For children with attention or learning problems also add 100-200 mg of phosphatidylserine (derived from soy lecithin) to also improve nerve function.

Harwood LJ, Fergusson DM. Breasfeeding and later cognitive and academic outcomes. Pediatrics 1998; 101:1-7.

Lanting CI, Fidler V, Huisman M, Touwen BC, Boersma ER. Neurological differences between 9-year-old children fed breast-milk or formula-milk as babies. Lancet 1994;334:1319–22.

Mitchell EA, Aman MG, Turbott SH, Manku M. Clinical characteristics and serum essential fatty acid levels in hyperactive children. Clin Pediatr 1987;26:406–11.[Medline]

Mortensen EL, Michaelsen KF, Sanders SA, Reinisch JM, The association between duration of breastfeeding and adult intelligence. JAMA 2002; 287:2365-71.

Rodgers B. Feeding in infancy and later ability and attainment: a longitudinal study. Develop Med Child Neurol 1978; 20:421-25.

Stevens LJ, Zentall SS, Deck JL, et al. Essential fatty acid metabolism in boys with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Am J Clin Nutr 1995;62:761–8.[Abstract]

Stevens LJ, Zentall SS, Abate ML, Kuczek T, Burgess JR. Omega-3 fatty acids in boys with behavior, learning, and health problems. Physiol Behav 1996;59:915–20.[Medline]

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