Some Primal Answers for Kids’ Problem Behaviors

kid shouting and crying during a temper tantrumLast week, Chris Kresser wrote a great article discussing the emerging—and likely causative—link between poor gut health and childhood misbehavior. He explained potential mechanisms for the association, as well as solutions to counter it.

But as any parent knows, getting a picky child to adopt your arsenal of perfect gut-supporting foods and supplements isn’t always easy. Not every kid immersed in the righteous anger of the terrible twos will stop what he’s doing to drink sauerkraut juice, nibble on kimchi, take resistant starch, drink kefir and bone broth.. It’s certainly a major part of the problem and the solution, but are there any other dietary causes? What else can a parent try to stem the flood of tantrums?

Ditch artificial food coloring.

Artificial food coloring hijacks the visual system designed to spot ripe fruit. It’s partly why kids gravitate toward bright green, red, yellow, and orange junk food. These colors are attractive to us, in part, because for most of human history they indicated the presence of ripe fruit.

Remember: our color vision also evolved so we could spot venomous snakes lurking in the foliage. Tens of thousands of parents consider these food dyes predators in their own right, swearing their kid goes berserk after a few handfuls of neon candy.

The FDA has even looked into it, admitting that dyes might affect kids with preexisting ADHD. Others think the feds were too cautious (or just plain dishonest), and more recent research has shown that food coloring can affect kids without ADHD, too. 

That said, a 2013 study of 8- and 9-year olds in Hong Kong failed to find an effect on behavior, even on high doses of artificial food colors, so it’s not an absolute, universal relationship.

Researchers have proposed a genetic explanation, finding that kids with genetic propensities toward impaired histamine degradation are more likely to have behavioral problems after consuming artificial food coloring. I find this likely, as artificial food coloring causes histamine release.

You could look for “natural” food dyes on nutrition labels. These usually use things like turmeric and paprika to make colors. Or you could just avoid “dyed” foods altogether. Just because your organic gojiberry lollipop uses saffron as a colorant doesn’t make a lollipop a good idea.

Limit sugar.

Is there a sugar crash? Experts say it doesn’t exist. But they also say adult reactive hypoglycemia—where eating refined carbs causes a big spike in blood glucose followed by a sharp decline and extreme fatigue, hunger, and irritability—doesn’t exist, either.

We do know that when blood glucose falls below a certain level, adrenaline is released to liberate body fat and provide energy. A 1995 study found that this effect occurs at a higher blood glucose level in kids compared to adults. The response is also stronger in children. When their bodies sense low energy availability, the adrenaline response is twice as high. That’s why your average child shouldn’t practice IF, and it’s why coming off of a candy bar, Slurpee, or slice of birthday cake hits them harder than it does us.

Not all sugar is the same though. The source matters. One study found that kids who ate more sugar from fruit snacks had a lower risk of ADHD. Total sugar intake had no relation overall.

Sugar-sweetened beverages seem to be the real baddies. They are consistently related to ADHD risk. They’re loaded with sugar in an easily digestible medium; a 40-pound toddler with a bottle of soda can easily ingest 40-50 grams of sugar without even thinking. These often come with the aforementioned artificial food dyes. To boot, they also usually contain caffeine, which is a bad idea for children.

Provide red meat.

I remember being on vacation with the family one year. My daughter was about 3 or 4 and adamant that she go vegetarian “just like Mommy.” Previous to this she was a fairly big meat eater. So for the first week of the trip she avoided meat entirely, instead opting for noodles, rice, and veggies. The tantrums were unbelievable by about the fourth day. Exploding over nothing. Tantrums, in other words. She was eating plenty of calories, so it wasn’t that.

I’d had enough. I went down to the butcher around the corner, bought a steak, brought it back to the condo, and grilled it. She ate it and almost immediately went back to her sweet self. Ever since then I’ve been a big believer in the magical properties of a well-cooked (not well-done) steak.

What about the research?

Meat as an early complementary food boosts head circumference. Unless those infantile carnivores are laying down extra skull for no reason, it’s safe to assume they’re building bigger brains better able to deal with the world rationally. Okay, maybe not rationally. These are kids we’re talking about.

Red meat provides zinc, a crucial nutrient for behavior regulation. Zinc deficiency is involved in the pathogenesis of ADHD. In the above study, meat-borne zinc levels predicted head circumference.

Red meat provides iron, another behavior regulator. One study found that correcting iron deficiency with iron supplements improved behavior in picky eaters.

Red meat provides B vitamins. Deficiencies in B vitamins are associated with behavior problems in teens, and perhaps younger children, too.

Red meat provides protein, and protein provides good blood sugar regulation. Every bite of red meat a toddler eats is something other than a bite of sugary refined carbs.

Provide pastured chicken liver.

Pastured chicken liver is extremely high in iron, folate, choline, B12, and protein, with a decent amount of zinc. And although it is higher in vitamin A than most other foods, it’s lower in vitamin A than other livers, so you can feed it a bit more often—maybe once or twice a week. The real beauty of chicken liver is the taste: it’s far milder than ruminant livers. Your mileage may vary.

Try a dairy-free, gluten-free diet.

Maybe the kid’s already eating this way (since the parents are card-carrying Primal Blueprinters). And there’s a good chance that ditching dairy and grains will have no effect on behavior. The scientific literature is certainly underwhelming. It’s worth a shot though. The anecdotal literature is rife with parents who report behavior problems disappearing once they addressed and resolved food intolerances—and dairy and gluten are fairly common ones.

Give your kid a chance.

Kids can eat well. They will eat well. They don’t have to subsist on hot dogs (grass-fed or not), chicken tenders (gluten-free or not), french fries (fried in tallow or not), and pizza (or meatza). If you give the kid a chance and offer some “adult” options, you’ll probably be surprised at what they try—and like.

Also, let them in the kitchen. Pull up a chair for them to stand on and reach the counter. Let them stir, mash, and even chop. Getting kids involved in food prep won’t just pay off six years down the line when they’re making dinner for the family. It forces them to have skin in the game. They’ll be more likely to want to eat something they had a hand in.

Offer psilocybin.

The emergence of the ego—the toddler’s realization that he or she is a separate being with desires and the executive agency necessary to achieve them—lies at the heart of the terrible twos. A moderate to large dose of psilocybin (or any of the related psychedelics) will destroy the ego, shatter the self, and return the child to an edenic state in congruence with the rest of nature.

Note: I’m kidding about that last one, of course.

But all the rest are legitimate interventions to try. If you have any others that worked for you and your family, let me know below!

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care.


TAGS:  toxins

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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36 thoughts on “Some Primal Answers for Kids’ Problem Behaviors”

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  1. Rather than limiting sugar, I would say eliminate it entirely. Some kids are sugar-sensitive for whatever reason. It turns them into hyperactive little monsters. Fruit is usually okay. Just make sure it’s unprocessed. There is a big difference between man-made sweets (including most canned fruit) and the natural sugars found in fresh whole fruit.

    Red meat is good, never mind all the nonsense spouted by the naysayers. Some people need more red meat than others for optimal health. I fall into that category and do best on a diet that contains quite a bit. That’s probably the main reason why I failed miserably in a misguided attempt at vegetarianism a number of years ago. The lack of red meat was literally making me sick.

    1. +1, I’ve often gotten sick of the red meat shamming by mainstream nutrition. Grass fed and wild ruminants provide the healthiest meat (outside of fish). More so then poultry or pork, even if it’s pasture raised. Eggs versus ruminant meat is a close call, egg yolks are mighty nutritious.

  2. Wish I knew all this when my kids were younger! I definitely fed them cleaner than most parents, but looking back there were still way too many processed carbs, even if they were from Whole Foods. And while I certainly offered them meat, as a vegetarian it wasn’t the first thing I thought of. All of these tips make sense. A great tip I got for feeding toddlers (I think from Doctor Sears) was to offer snacks in ice cube trays, so you could offer a variety of tiny portions. For example, avocado cubes, some cut up grapes, and cheese cubes. It makes things appealing and less overwhelming. And avocados are the perfect first food!

  3. My toddler is dairy & gluten intolerant and strangely enough, cannot tolerate corn. About 1.5 hours after ingesting the smallest amount of corn (usually accidentally ingested as don’t eat corn) yields a massive tantrum such that looking at her you would think she was possessed. Not joking. I cannot imagine what she would be like behavior wise if she were consuming small amounts of corn throughout the day, everyday (corn, in all of it’s sneaky forms, is in practically every processed food!)

    1. Nina – I am gluten and corn intolerant, and yes, corn does a number on me, almost worse than wheat/gluten. The two combined, and yes, even as an adult I have been known to throw a tantrum I couldn’t control.

      Also, be very wary of commercially fed beef, as most of it is corn fed the last 90-120 days. For me, that’s enough to activate my corn allergy, resulting in sore, cranky guts and a crabby psyche.

  4. Persistence & Patience! So many parents give up too easily on introducing their kids to healthy foods. It took about 15 times on their plate before my kids went from disliking and refusing to eat more than a tiny bite of broccoli until they loved it. Even as teens this procedure still works on them. Recently introduced them to raw sauerkraut and they went from going “yuck” with a tiny bite to now they will eat a few tablespoons on their plate without me even asking. There might be a few foods they will never like but don’t give up putting it on their plate as one day they might suddenly eat more than a tiny bite.

    1. When my daughter was young I used the two-bite rule. She couldn’t leave the table until she took two bites of her veggies. Sometimes those bites were so tiny as to be almost microscopic, but gradually she got to the point where she liked most of those foods. With my son I had no worries. He would eat anything I put on his plate.

  5. Great post! I totally laughed out loud at your red meat story. I’m sure you are an awesome dad. Some of my daughters’ first foods were red meat, bone marrow, etc. and they have head circumferences that are off the charts compared to their bodies. I think last time their heads were 90th percentile compared to 30th percentile for height lol. I hope that means big brains!

    1. That actually happened to me when I tried to be healthy and vegetarian, felt so horrible for months and thought, I just need a steak, so I made me one and CURED!!!! Never went back, it’s beef for me with a little chicken, turkey, pork and fish.

  6. SLEEP!!!! Hands down, sleep cures all! (Mostly) Our kids have been Primal for years now, so some of those behavioral issues that (not terrible twos) three-nagers go through are completely normal developmental growths. So if you have Primal kids, my best advice for the most amount of happiness is this…Sleep (lots of it), plenty of Outside time, good whole food (ala Primal) and plenty of modeling of good behaviors from parents. I would also throw in that Homeschooling makes a huge difference for us too!

    1. We thought about homeschooling, but decided my daughter needed much more social exposure. But to get her enough sleep, I haven’t worried about her being late to school, and so far, the school hasn’t worried either. I definitely dub sleep more important than being on time–and doing meaningless “morning work.”

  7. I’ve read where a absence of long chain omega 3s can cause psychological complications as well.

  8. Just reread Heinlein’s _Stranger in a Strange Land_. That last (disclaimed) method was very much in keeping. Great story, but the sexism makes it a period piece. For those of us born before the 1960’s, we’ve moved to a new land — without moving.

  9. I would add some kind of fish oil or cod liver oil to that list of great ideas.

  10. Yes, and feeding them one thing at a time really helps! If you serve a kid broccoli, carrots, yams, and mac and cheese, they eat the mac and cheese, ignore the broccoli, and ask for more mac and cheese. But if you put out broccoli “while the mac and cheese is cooking” they get bored waiting and start eating the broccoli and carrots. Then after a little while, it becomes part of their diet. Then, if given all together on one plate, they eat it all.

  11. I’m here to testify that red meat calms angsty teenagers too. Grilled up some ribeyes the other night and my son was so sedate after that he just sat and chilled out with us. No arguments, no rush to leave the table, just a happy, content sixteen year old… And if you’ve ever had a sixteen year old you know how rare happy AND content can be 😉

  12. In regards to picky kids, taking the pressure off of them helps sooo much. If anyone is struggling with this I highly recommend Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility. Don’t be a short order cook, but take everyone’s tastes into account at dinner.

    My other tips: Offer variety. Colourful fruits and veggies. Put a small amount of each food so it isn’t overwhelming. Make sure there’s at least one familiar thing on the plate. And then relax. Let them eat what they want without pressure (don’t even offer positive reinforcement for eating). Let them develop their own relationship with food.

    And try different presentations of foods. My toddler isn’t a huge fan of cooked veggies but will happily crunch most raw ones, especially if I shred them with a grater.

    Fun names don’t hurt either. We have a smoothie every day and I give them names such as “green monster” or “vanillaberry yum”

    1. I think this is god advice. And if you keep asking a picky kid to try something new, and they keep saying no, consider whether you are just making things worse by training their ‘no response’.

  13. My three year old would add to the list a regular dose of “Ba-boo-cha” (kombucha).

    In seriousness, there seems to be a vast difference in having a kid go gluten free v.s. having them go totally grain free. And, dried fruit is just like sugar to kids’ behavior, so expect craziness after “paleo” treats like Larabars!

  14. My 3 year old boy is excellent at eating produce but avoid all meat at all costs. I know it is affecting his behavior and also sick of mealtimes being a battleground. Any advice out there?

    1. My daughter won’t eat meat that is “unchewable.” But she eats chicken, Trader Joes’s canned smoked trout, tuna, salmon, canned mackeral, and most meals made with ground meat. Maybe you’ve tried all options, but if not, start with easy to chew meats, and, depending on your son’s preference, ones you can flavor a lot. My now very picky daughter loves my chili and this ground venison (can be beef, turkey, goat) dish I make with Indian flavors. Mixing it into a casserole or lasanga might help, too. Not for us, though; my daughter likes her food separated. Also, if you have to, get sneaky. I make venison jerky at home–with just salt. I can powder it in the Vitamix. I use it for pemmican, then. But you could hide it in mac and cheese, tomato sauce, nut/ftuit snack bars, and much more. And for some reason, my daughter loves the jerky as is. I make it thin and crispy. As a last resort, Applegate makes grass-fed organic hot dogs, which we eat as a treat. At least it’s red meat. Would he eat those?

      1. Thanks for the ideas and the hope!! He won’t even eat hot dogs if you can believe that!! He will eat the white of a hard boiled egg so he has been having a lot of those lately.

        1. My now 3year-old’s first meat was duck liver pate. He eats beef, chicken, pork, etc. The first time he tried a hot dog he hated it. He would not eat it. Now he’ll have one when ‘the big kids do’, but he would never choose it. I’d suggest trying different textures of meat and calling them different things (i.e., not meat, this is chicken, this is a drumstick, this is hamburger, this is steak, these are beef fajitas) and seeing if he can separate out what he likes from what he doesn’t. My son sometimes doesn’t like hamburger, but he wants steak.

  15. It is amazing the difference a good diet can play in a child’s behavior! Also I think what really really helped my child, was not giving the “acting up” behavior much attention. Not necessary ignoring them, just not reacting to it and letting them see it affect you. This is what will make them keep doing something, if they see it causes an effect.

  16. Great Post!! Thank you! I am certain that teachers bear the brunt of this. I often wondered what my students would’ve been like if they ate properly.

    We have see my daughter go from her fabulous self to a whiney, sensitive mess due to too much sugar/empty carbs–which we didn’t usually give her. We avoid it like the plague now, and if someone else gives it, we try to cancel it out ASAP with a good dose of protein.

    At the beginning of age 4, she hit the worst part of it, and I was calling it the “Terrible Fours”. Meltdowns nearly every day, when she had been so easy-going. A slice of cheese and Mommy snuggle could end the meltdown. And meltdowns over imagined things, or things we said were untrue. “No, that’s not what we’re going to do.” And once, she freaked out that we’d passed our house on the way home, which we hadn’t, and wouldn’t get out of the car at our house, because she said it wasn’t our house; we’d passed it. It went on a few months, then she went gluten free, and it slowly disappeared over a few months, As did her seasonal allergies.

    A couple years later, on a ski trip, we were lured into buying her Waffle Hut waffles and she got very melt-downy and extremely physically sensitive. Once back to real food, she was herself again.

    Our difficulty is that she claims a lot of meat is “unchewable.” So a steak is out. We do a lot of ground meat as a result–and stews. Thankfully she likes fish (and beans). She also used to eat any veggie and nearly any food–if the foods weren’t mixed up. At 7, she has become so picky that she’ll only eat raw carrots, cucumbers, avacado, and bell pepper. She’ll eat a bit more out of the garden in the summer. We just keep offering and eating it ourselves, hoping that one day, she’ll get over it. We’ve tried every kind of good advice for getting kids to eat well, but none has helped, as things just get ticked off the list more and more. And you never know what she will and won’t eat on a given day. But she’s free to make herself eggs if she doesn’t want dinner.

  17. And since we’re not going to give kids psychodelics, we need to embrace the twos and offer them what they need. Give them experiences so they know they can control their world. Listen to them and learn what they really need and are interested in. Love and hold them as much as they need. And natural consequences over punishment. Respect kids as human beings that are just newer–not as clay to be molded that doesn’t know itself and adults need to rule over. Naomi Aldort has a fabulous book, “Raising our Children Raising Ourselves” which I have lived by with my daughter and I think has made a big difference. We did not have a problem with tantrums.

  18. Great read! What I have noticed, when kids come home from school they want a quick snack so they can keep playing! Many go for the chips, cookies, popsicles, easy microwavable snacks, take them and run. Knowing there is zero nutritional value in these snacks, help the kids and have snacks laid out for them. They will eat them! They don’t have to do anything, the snacks are ready. Making up plates of red and yellow peppers and cucumbers is a great idea. If they need to have a dip, try to find the one with the best nutritional value…maybe hummus? Another idea is a plate of broccoli, carrots and grape tomatoes. If they need to have a dip, try a low fat ranch. Or a plate of apple slices and oranges can be a hit too. There are many options to choose from and if they are placed in front of them, they will eat them!

    1. Having a snack platter out on the table when they come home makes all the difference, crudités, avocado ,nuts some fruit cheese ( if you eat it) sliced cold chicken they will happily eat it and go about their business

  19. My 13 year old daughter loves to tell me about all the kids at school eating pudding cups, doritos, lunchables, fruit leather, etc. One of her friends brings a granola bar, a fruit leather and a chocolate milk for lunch every day. So glad she appreciates how crazy that is!

  20. I have 4 kids that are sensitive to sugar, refined carbs 3of them to milk, so am I!
    They are now adults all of us are also ADHD. I realized early on that a total ban on sugar would probably backfire. Instead the ban was on stuff with food color, soft drinks, breakfast cereals. They could only have something sweet after “real food” and the sweets were either chocolate or home baked things.Since they weren’t hungry they didn’t eat very much. One of my children had a life threatening allergy so all of the food at home was made by scratch(she outgrew it!!!!) Bottom line even if your kids are ADHD keeping them well fed on real food, having them cook with you so they want to eat that real food seems to be a good solution. Most tantrums were as a result of being hungry, or coming home from a friends house where they were served regular kids stuff, They managed to get through school mostly with out Ritalin (we were pressed to try it, all of them loathed it so we managed with out) They all graduated ?The bonus is that as young adults they generally make good food choices and know how to shop and cook for themselves.
    By the way going primal is probably the best thing I’ve done for myself, I’m not moody I have loads of energy and I’m slowly losing weight(I’m 56, my kids are 25,23,21and 18)

  21. I recommend avoiding vaccinations, foods sprayed with chemicals and GMO foods. All these have been shown to cause gut problems for adults as well as children – who are most vulnerable.

  22. It’s not just food dyes. I do use some pre-made foods but they’re basic ingredients. I’m always shocked when I see what conventional foods look like. Every last one has artificial dyes, flavors, preservatives, or sweeteners. Frequently more than one.

    Back when she was 5, my daughter suddenly started having temper tantrums with no known cause. She wasn’t eating eggs, dairy, or gluten, foods she was then allergic to. She wasn’t getting foods from other people. And she hadn’t been exposed to pesticides, herbicides, nasty cleaning products, or perfumes that also can set her off.

    Finally, she admitted that, last time we were in a regular store, she had taken a pack of gum and was hiding it from us. We had natural gum for her at home but she wanted sticks and the natural stuff only comes in pellets (we’d looked into buying her sticks but every last one had 4 or 5 or more toxic chemicals in the ingredient list, including more than one artificial sweetener).

    Of course we made her return the half-eaten pack of gum to the store and pay for it out of her allowance (the store told her to keep the gum after paying but we refused). The don’t-steal lesson was important but I think the more valuable lesson was “this is what eating junk does to you.”

    She’s 12 now and sometimes eats junk (not at home) and sometimes eats other things that are not great for her. She’s old enough to make those choices and her symptoms are much more mild. But she also refuses treats when she doesn’t want to the symptoms they’ll bring. I’ve even seen her stop eating a food in her hand (including natural foods that don’t agree with her) because she thought she would feel ukky if she continued to eat them.

  23. Our youngest son had problems and the Dr. took him off Dairy Products and put him on Goat’s Milk.