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Deficiency at Root of Behavior Problem : What Is Missing in Child's Diet May Be Causing the Trouble

April 25, 1985

It may not be what's in a child's diet, but what's missing that's causing behavior problems in school and at home, a leading nutrition authority says.

Eleanor Whitney, a registered dietitian with the Dairy Council of California and author of three college-level nutrition textbooks, says that hyperactivity in children is seldom caused by sugar, additives or food allergies.

If sugar is blamed for a child's behavior problems and sweets are removed from the diet, the right decision is being made, but for the wrong reason, Whitney said.

"It's not the sugar itself that causes the problem. But kids who eat lots of sweets do so at the expense of eating more nutritious foods," she said.

The Beginning Stages

"Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in children in this country, and the beginning stages of iron deficiency anemia--before it is severe enough to be detected by blood test--can include such symptoms as shortened attention span, a reduced intellectual performance, lowered IQ, conduct disturbances, hyperactivity, irritability, fatigue and weakness," Whitney said.

Children suffering from such symptoms may be labeled hyperactive, depressed or unruly, when in fact the child could be suffering from marginal malnutrition, Whitney points out.

"Kids should be eating wholesome foods every day--at least three to four servings of milk and other dairy products, two servings of meat or meat substitutes like eggs and beans, two fruits and two vegetables and four servings of breads, cereals and other grains," Whitney advises.

Foods high in iron include lean meat, eggs, baked beans, lima beans and peas, and any food cooked in an iron skillet or pot. Raisin bran and cream of wheat cereals, as well as prunes, raisins, strawberries and watermelon are also high in iron.

"Make sure your children eat the minimum number of food group servings before giving them sweets or dessert," Whitney said.

Symptoms of Nutrient Deficien

Whitney cautions that iron is just one of several dozen important nutrients that might be low in a nutrient-poor or unbalanced diet. Behavioral as well as physical symptoms such as confusion, apathy, lack of energy, depression, irritability and headaches can result from a deficiency in such nutrients as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folacin, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, magnesium and zinc, as well as too little protein or too few calories in the diet.

"If your child has behavior problems, look at his entire diet and ask yourself if you are including a variety of wholesome foods to provide a balance of needed nutrients. No one food is in and of itself 'bad,' but too much of any food can cause an undesirable imbalance," Whitney said.

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