Nutrition and Prevention

Making the Connection: How What We Eat Impacts Learning

By Carol Ann Brannon, MS, RD, LD

Do the ingredient lists of your child’s favorite foods confuse you? Do you suspect that your child’s diet is connected to his mood, behavior, learning difficulties and attention span?

Your suspicions may not be just in your head. Studies are beginning to show that to maximize brain development, minimize negative behaviors and help children learn, parents should be very aware of what their children are eating.

As parents, it’s our job to make sure our kids are safe and thriving. We monitor what they see, hear, smell and touch with the hopes that our vigilance will ensure their progress and contentment. What about the food they eat? Healthy eating goes beyond just making sure they eat their veggies. Parents need to be aware of possible toxins in food, where those toxins come from, and how to make sure their kids are getting safe food. The safeguarding of our children’s diet becomes even more imperative when it might impact the value of their learning.

Scientific evidence does indicate that artificial food additives, such as preservatives and food dyes, can affect the cognitive functioning and behavior of some children with learning difficulties (and illnesses that can interrupt learning). Other substances in our food, such as pesticides are also being linked to learning differences, ADHD and influence on brain development. In 1999, the Center for Science in the Public Interest reviewed 17 controlled studies (most focused on artificial colors, some examined the effect of allergens like milk and corn) and concluded that diet does adversely affect some children’s behavior, sometimes dramatically. A 2007 study in Lancet involving 153 preschool and grade-school aged children in the United Kingdom reported that dietary intake of artificial food colorings and additives, particularly the preservative sodium benzoate, resulted in an increase in hyperactivity. Many parents already suspect what science is starting to prove, that pesticides and additives in our children’s food can affect their brain development and behavior. Despite the lack of scientific consensus, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence citing improvement in ADHD symptoms, including sleep problems and mood changes with diet elimination of artificial additives. Children affected by eczema, asthma, allergies, hives and hay fever may be more responsive to dietary interventions.

Optimize Your Organic Choices

Organic produce can be expensive. If you can’t make a complete switch to organic, the solution is to prioritize. According to the Environmental Working Group, families can reduce their pesticide exposure by 80 percent just by avoiding the most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating only the cleanest. Families consuming five daily servings of fruits and vegetables from the least contaminated produce would ingest less than two pesticides daily. The chart below lists the “dirty” dozen and “not-so-dirty” dozen.

Dirty dozen
Highest in pesticide residue
Try to buy organic
Lowest in pesticide residue
Okay for conventionally grown
• Peaches
• Apples
• Sweet bell peppers
• Celery
• Nectarines
• Strawberries
• Cherries
• Pears
• Grapes (imported)
• Spinach
• Lettuce
• Potatoes
• Papayas
• Broccoli
• Cabbage
• Bananas
• Kiwifruit
• Sweet peas (frozen)
• Asparagus
• Mangoes
• Pineapple
• Sweet corn (frozen)
• Avocados
• Onions
If organic meat is not in your budget…
• Purchase meat from grass-fed animals and/or
hormone-free animals.
• Choose low-fat meats as most toxins are stored
in the fatty cells of animals.
• Trim visible fat and skin from meat and poultry.
• Limit red meat intake to two times or less a week.
• Exercise portion control; 3 to 4 ounces is considered a portion.
• Eat vegetarian meals twice weekly.

Children are more vulnerable than adults to toxins since, pound for pound, they eat and drink more than adults. The use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics in our food has become routine. Advances in biotechnology have yielded genetically-modified crops, and the demand for “convenience” foods have contributed to the increased use of chemicals and additives. Since our kids still have to eat (and get to school and soccer practice and therapy/tutoring appointments and play dates and birthday parties), how can a busy family make sure they are eating the safest, most brainhealthy food? The good news is that there are simple steps parents can take to decrease the toxins in their kids’ food and maximize their learning potential.

The five most offensive food toxins
The first step is for parents to be aware of what is actually in the food they eat. The words “natural” and “wholesome” on food packaging can be misleading and don’t always accurately reflect how the food was grown and/or prepared. Parents need to become familiar with the following five toxic offenders and in which foods you are most likely to find them.

    • Organophosphates (OPs) are the most common class of pesticides used on corn, soy, wheat, and various fruits and vegetables. Although the government has set allowable and “safe” limits for chemical residues on conventionally grown produce, a growing number of experts question the current “toxic threshold” (the lowest exposure thought to be harmful). Research indicates that pesticides and toxins are more prevalent in foods than originally thought. A 2002 study found children ages 2 to 5 who ate conventionally grown food had 8.5 times more OP residue in their urine than children who ate organic foods. A 2004 report released by Environment California stated that children exposed to agricultural pesticides can show deficiencies in intellectual development, stamina, balance, hand-eye coordination and short-term memory. New studies are emerging suggesting pesticides, particularly OPs, are linked to ADHD, obesity, diabetes, and learning disorders. Foods to check: fresh fruit and produce.

Learn the Label Lingo

• Produce, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products bearing a green and white “organic” seal have met stringent USDA standards and passed inspection. If labeled “100% organic,” the product has no synthetic ingredients. If labeled “organic,” it has a minimum of 95% organic ingredients. Both may use the USDA organic seal.
• Food labeled “made with organic ingredients” must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, but may not use the seal USDA organic seal.
• The terms “free-range” or “natural” do not necessarily mean “organic,” “hormone-free,” or “antibiotic-free.”
• The term “natural” is not regulated by the USDA and broadly refers to minimally processed foods that are free of synthetic preservatives, artifi cial additives and flavor enhancers. The majority of raw meat and poultry found in grocery stores fits this definition.
• If you see the following on food labels, you know you are not making the safest choice for your family.
* The worst offenders in artificial colors are Red #40 and Yellow #5. These have been known to cause hyperactivity.
* Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a neurotoxin and excitotoxin that crosses the blood-brain barrier and excites brain cells. It’s widely found in processed foods and associated with migraine headaches in some individuals.
* Acesulfame-K, Aspartame (Equal® and Nutrasweet®), Sucralose (Splenda ®), Saccharin (Sweet and Low®) are artificial sweeteners. They are considered “safe” according to government standards, but studies are inconclusive regarding their long-term effects. They have been known to cause migraines and seizures in some individuals.
* The preservatives BHA, BHT and sodium benzoate may cause a variety of health and behavior problems. BHT has been banned in other countries. Sodium benzoate is widely used in soft drinks.
  • Mercury is released into the air and water from coalfired power plants, as well as municipal and medical waste incinerators. Bacteria in sediments and water convert mercury to the more toxic form, methylmercury, which enters the aquatic food chain, resulting in methylmercury- contaminated fish. The American Academy of Pediatrics advocates that minimizing mercury exposure is essential for optimal child health (especially for pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, nursing mothers and young children) because mercury adversely affects many aspects of development, in particular brain maturation. Food to check: fish.
  • Artificial food additives make up the more than 3,000 chemicals that are added to our food. Flavor enhancers, dyes, sweeteners and preservatives all serve to give food a longer shelf-life and a more appealing appearance. Today’s foods are first “refined” (stripped of important nutrients and fiber), then highly processed with artificial additives, and then fortified with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Foods to check: processed foods.
  • Dioxins are unintentional byproducts of industrial activities that are released into the air and settle in water bodies, where they build up in fish and on grasslands where they are then ingested by cows. Polychlorinated biphenyls are a class of chemicals used in electrical equipment, hydraulic fluids, adhesives and other products. Although banned in the United States in 1979 due to evidence of toxicity even at low levels, their widespread use and persistence in the environment means that they will be present in our environment and food for years to come. These chemicals are especially toxic to growing, developing brains. Prenatal exposure can result in permanent IQ deficits. Foods to check: conventionally produced meat, fish, and dairy foods, especially those high in fat.
  • Lead is a toxic metal that was used for many years in products found in and around homes. It can enter drinking water from plumbing materials, and may cause arange of health effects including behavioral problems and learning disabilities. Children 6-years-old and under are most at risk. A variety of factors can result in lead-tainted water. See lead/leadfactsheet.html for facts about how to determine if your drinking water might contain lead.

Web and Print Sources

Food toxins and learning differences
– Bock K and Stauth C. Healing the new childhood epidemics: autism, ADHD, asthma, and Allergies. New York: Random House; 2007.
– Persistent pesticides linked to ADHD, obesity, and diabetes. School Pesticide Monitor. Jan/Feb 2007;7(1):1-2.
– Learning Disabilities Association of Maine. Healthy homes and families: how to reduce your family’s exposure to toxic chemicals at home. URL:
– Lemer, Patty, Envisioning a Bright Future: Interventions that Work for Children and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Santa Ana, CA: OEP Foundation, Inc. 2008. (information on 2007 Lancet study)… (PDF)

Choosing organic produce/meat/dairy

Monitoring the mercury in fish

Organic container gardening

11 ways to detoxify the family diet

Below are 11 simple changes families can make to lessen the toxins in their diet. Remember, small changes make a big difference. Parents can choose one change each month, and within a year all the changes will be routine healthy habits. If your family members are big meat eaters, then you can choose just that one area and commit to eating organic beef or chicken.

  1. Focus on plant foods: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds. Try to eat these foods before they are processed (an organic apple instead of apple juice, whole grain bread instead of white bread). Buy local produce since imported produce may be higher in pesticides than US-grown produce.
  2. Look for sports drinks and juice that are not artificially colored, or that use natural sources of color (beet juice).
  3. Avoid artificial sweeteners. Many products that are labeled “sugar free” contain artificial sweeteners.
  4. When it’s feasible, choose organic produce (see Optimize Your Organic Choices).
  5. Also when it’s feasible, choose organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy foods because they come from animals not given antibiotics or growth hormones, and they must be fed 100 percent organic feed which is free of any animal by-products, hormones, antibiotics or other drugs. Grass-fed meats are preferable.
  6. Test your water for lead which can leach from old pipes or from the solder in pipes no matter what the age of the house. See the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines on testing your drinking water ( Even if you have lead in your water, you don’t necessarily have to replace your pipes. See the National Safety Foundation (NSF) Web site at to learn more about water filtration.
  7. To help block the storage of lead in your child’s body, serve your family meals that are low in fat and high in calcium and iron, including green vegetables.
  8. Be aware of mercury levels in fish.
  9. Become fluent in reading ingredient lists and labels.
  10. Plant an organic container garden. You don’t need to plow up your back yard to grow your own organic veggies.
  11. Consider joining a community support agriculture group. For a fee, families can pick up locally grown organic produce each week. Check out for more information.

With our busy lives and recovering economy, it’s easy to reach for the convenient and inexpensive food. Changing our eating habits may seem overwhelming and outside the budget, but by setting small realistic goals and by making one change at a time, parents can make a big difference in the safety of their kids’ food. And, safer food means a healthier brain.

The Dish on Fish

Fish can be very heart healthy, but they can also contain harmful levels of mercury. Below are some ways to reap the health benefits of fish and as well as keep the catch on your dinner table as mercury-free as possible.
• Do not eat shark, swordfish, kin mackerel or tilefish, because these all contain high levels of mercury.
• Eat up to 12oz a week (two average meals) of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. Another commonly eaten fish, albacore (“white”) tuna, has more mercury than canned light tuna, so when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces a week (one average meal) of albacore tuna.
• Check local advisories (www. fish_advisory/fgc-2006. pdf) about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. Did you know that the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has one of the most extensive fish monitoring programs in the southeast? This is not because Georgia has highly contaminated fish, but because the DNR has made a serious commitment to evaluate fish quality and provide detailed information to the people of Georgia.

Read Part II: Related Article: Making the Connection: How Where We Live Impacts Learning then take the Kids Enabled Making the Connections Survey.

This article has been made possible by a 2008 grant from the Learning Disabilities Association of America, Healthy Children’s Project. It is the hope of the LDAG and Kids Enabled to continue informing parents of the toxic risks that can impair learning, some of which are preventable before birth. If you would like more information on the Healthy Children’s Project and current legislation to reduce environmental toxins please visit, If you would like to get more involved in reducing environmental toxins in Georgia, please email us at


Related Article: Making the Connection: How Where We Live Impacts Learning


About Kim Martindale

Mother of two, wife of one, home manager, gardener, student of health and wellness, world traveler, nature lover, researcher, Jesus follower, community builder. I'm seeking to become resilient and to live sustainably. I desire to give back and share what I'm learning with others.


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