Food and Behaviour Research

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Nutritional epigenetics education reduces ultra-processed food intake in parents of children with autism and ADHD

Food Ingredient and Health Research Institute

Processed foods

By the end of the education intervention, parents had changed their minds about their ability to control their child's behaviour through diet.


This article reports on a controlled trial showing that a nutrition education program specially designed for parents of children with autism and/or ADHD led to them making dietary changes that significantly reduced their children's intakes of ultra-processed foods (UPF).

Reducing UPF is likely to improve the overall nutritional quality of any child’s diet – as these industrially produced foods are generally high in sugar, low in fibre and essential nutrients, and provide an unhealthy balance of fats and artificial additives.

While the study did not directly measure this, improving the quality of a child’s diet by reducing their UPF intake would therefore be expected to improve their nutritional status, and with that, their general health and wellbeing.  Increasing evidence indicates that UPF-rich diets predict - and may directly contribute to - a wide range of mental as well as physical health problems relevant to ADHD and ASD. These include anxiety, depression and poor mood regulation, sleep problems and attentional difficulties, as well as gut and immune-related conditions.

To succeed in reducing UPF intakes of children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) or ADHD is no small achievement. 

Behaviour change of any kind is difficult, particularly for children with ASD or ADHD, and especially with respect to eating habits and food preferences. Motivation is key – so parents need to believe that it will be both possible, and worthwhile. In addition, practical information and support are needed - which can be difficult to access.

This educational program appeared to increase parents' confidence that reducing UPF would be worthwhile by 

(1) explaining the concept of 'nutritional epigenetics' - i.e. that nutrition can (and does) influence gene expression and regulation, and

(2) providing information on research linking high UPF consumption with potential negative epigenetic effects on brain development - and therefore behaviour - with reference to its likely effects on both nutritional status, and exposure to various environmental toxins, including heavy metals (such as lead, mercury, arsenic etc), pesticides, and artificial food additives.

For details of the underlying research, see:

For further information please see:

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09/02/24 - Newsmedical


In a recent publication released by PubMed, American scientists led by Dr. Dufault at the Food Ingredient and Health Research Institute, reported the results of a clinical trial in which parents who received nutritional epigenetics education significantly reduced their consumption of ultra-processed foods while increasing their intake of whole and/or organic foods.

The education intervention used curriculum focused on the constructs of the nutritional epigenetics model that explains how autism and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may develop from the excess consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Consumption of ultra-processed foods leads to heavy metal exposures and dietary deficits that create mineral imbalances such as zinc and calcium losses. Inadequate zinc stores can disrupt the function of the metal transporter metallothionein (MT) gene preventing the elimination of heavy metals found in ultra-processed foods.

The bioaccumulation of mercury and/or lead is common in children with autism and ADHD who are often zinc deficient. Mercury, lead, and other heavy metals are known to suppress the paraoxonase (PON1) gene. Paraoxonase is required by the body to detoxify the neurotoxic organophosphate pesticide residues found routinely in the food supply by the United States Department of Agriculture. Children with autism and ADHD are more susceptible to the harmful effects of organophosphate pesticide exposures.

Parents who received nutritional epigenetics education learned how to reduce their children's dietary exposures to heavy metal and organophosphate pesticide residues. The parents learned how to read food ingredient labels and changed their diet as they avoided buying foods with allowable heavy metal and pesticide residues.

In learning how specific food ingredients contribute to heavy metal exposures, impact nutrient status and/or gene behavior, parents gained the knowledge they needed to feed themselves and their children a healthier diet. By the end of the education intervention, parents had changed their minds about their ability to control their child's behavior through diet.

Children behave better when they feel better. Because the severity of symptoms in autism and ADHD correlate directly to the heavy metal levels in blood, children with less heavy metal exposure show improvements in behavior and cognition.

In addition, because heavy metals, in single or multi-metallic combination, create conditions for gut dysbiosis, improvements in diet can reduce inflammation and improve gut health. Reducing ultra-processed food consumption can alleviate symptoms associated with gut dysbiosis which is often a co-morbid condition found in children with autism and ADHD.

Autism and ADHD are preventable, but the prevalence of these neurodevelopmental disorders will continue to increase in the United States until changes are made to reduce the allowable heavy metal residues in the ultra-processed food supply.

The US Congress released two reports in 2021 on the problem of heavy metals in baby foods. The first report issued on February 4, 2021, revealed baby foods are tainted with dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. The second report, issued on September 29, 2021, confirmed new disclosures from manufacturers show dangerous levels of heavy metals in even more baby foods.