Is classroom behavior linked to diet?

Students at California’s Canyon Verde School didn’t realize what food additives were doing to their well-being when they were challenged to take part in a nutritional study. They also didn’t realize that their diets, some carefully planned by caring parents, were loaded with unplanned inputs of hidden calories, fats and additives.

Students at California’s Canyon Verde School didn’t realize what food additives were doing to their well-being when they were challenged to take part in a nutritional study. They also didn’t realize that their diets, some carefully planned by caring parents, were loaded with unplanned inputs of hidden calories, fats and additives.

The issue came to a head when a school nutritionist ran into a wall of resistance over proposed changes to food guidelines. To make her point, she proposed that students compare a control group of rats fed natural foods and clean water with three groups subjected to students’ favorite foods. The second group was fed natural foods and hotdogs. The third group was fed sugar-coated cereal and fruit punch. The fourth group was fed a couch-potato diet of doughnuts and cola.

The rats receiving natural food and clean water remained attentive and alert. Rats on natural food and hotdogs became violent and fought aggressively. The third group of rats living on sugar-coated cereal and fruit punch were nervous, hyperactive and behaved aimlessly. The fourth group subsisting on doughnuts and cola were unable to function as a social unit. They were fearful and had trouble sleeping.

Some of the rats became pregnant during the study, giving students a chance to study extended results of diet on the babies. Newborn rats displayed the same traits as mothers in their groups, which meant that chemical additives had likely passed to the newborns via either mothers’ milk, placental membranes, or possibly by passing through the blood-brain barrier.

When the rats in all test groups were put back on natural food it took weeks for them to revert to normal behavior. The test results convinced students to drop their opposition to a healthier lunch diet. In fact, when Canyon Verde School children began eating foods without chemical additives, big changes began to take place. Students formerly disruptive and hyperactive became civilized, calm and attentive.

California’s Department of Education was impressed. Though the effect of chemicals on behavior was dramatic, effects also impacted brain-processing and intelligence tests. Schools in New York City and California moved to eliminate foods with artificially high sugar content and synthetic coloring chemicals. Within a year, test results went up 8 percent. After synthetic flavorings and colorings were banned, scores rose another 4 percent. And when two more chemicals, the antioxidant preservatives BHT and BHA were removed from school lunch programs, test scores rose another 4 percent. Although other factors might have impacted the rosy results, there is reason to believe that faulty diet could suppress student achievement by as much as 16 percent.

The Canyon Verde tests and the experience of students in New York City schools pointed clearly to artificial colors and preservatives as causes of behavioral hyperactivity in children. The British medical journal, Lancet, targeted the dye, Yellow No. 5, or tartrazine and the benzoic acid commonly found in processed foods as dramatic causes of hyperactivity in 79 percent of children tested in the U.K. The choice for parents of hyperactive children becomes, diet modification, pills, or constant disciplining.

Dr. Benjamin Feingold of San Francisco made recommendations for children that avoid synthetic colorings, flavorings and preservatives. To get the word out, he set up clearing houses that focused on diet-modification as a cure for learning and behavioral disorders. His issue was overuse of prescription drugs to modify disruptive behavior, a practice that, in many cases, loses its reason once diet is modified.

In 2001, Quaker Oats focused research on indicators that eating oats might yield a measurable effect on brain function. Centuries of folk medicine had referred to the calming effect of oats. Oats had long been used in Europe as a mild sedative and healers in a number of cultures wrote of it as effective in treating anxiety, stress and over-excitement.

In the schools, enlightened educators realized that the behaviors of disruptive scatter-brained students might be telling them that something was wrong with them. Help was offered by pharmaceutical companies that responded with drugs. Quaker, harkening back to those ancient reports that oats deliver a calming effect, put oats to the test at Tufts University’s labs.

The tests results said little about oats and behavior modification but they said much about academic achievement. It was found that children who eat oatmeal as compared with cold cereal or no cereal at all perform better on tasks of memory. More than two thirds of the oat-eating group performed better on spatial tests related to math and geography than the non-oat and non-cereal groups. The study went on to document that half of the students breakfasting on ready-to-eat cereals did better than those who went without breakfast, a no-brainer.

The study tested 30 middle-income children from the Boston area one day per week. Each time they were given oatmeal or ready-to-eat cereal or no breakfast at all. Sixty minutes later all were tested for one hour. The oatmeal group consistently performed 5 to 20 percent better than the other two groups in spatial testing including recalling map details.

The researchers pointed to how oatmeal’s high fiber and protein help delay digestion and promote slower and prolonged release of glucose into the blood system. The brain is better supplied with a constant supply of glucose to satisfy its energy needs. Since the 9-11 year-olds of the test groups represented a period when complex learning skills are developed, findings touched on children’s key period for becoming prepared for further mental development.

Most psychiatrists and homeopathic physicians are upset over the side effects of Ritalin, Concerta, Adderall and other behavior-modifying drugs. When side effects include nervousness, insomnia, skin rash, fever, anorexia, nausea, dizziness, palpitations, headache, drowsiness, pulse changes, angina, abdominal pain and weight loss, any non-threatening alternative is welcomed.

If diet modification works, it would be a cheap fix. It requires tossing expensive and highly processed foods and replacing them with simple stuff. With grocery prices soaring, why not? If that isn’t reason enough, get some rats and run the test yourself.

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