Sue's Blog

Diet and academic performance: are researchers reinventing the wheel?

A recent Australian study found that eating more vegetables is associated with higher NAPLAN scores and drinking sugar sweetened beverages with lower NAPLAN scores.


Why is this a surprise? We failsafers have known for years that diet affects schoolwork and there is plenty of quality research. In a typical diet success story, this mother wrote:

“Last year I put my 8 year old boy on the elimination diet … now he is achieving amazing results at school. He achieved very highly in the NAPLAN … ” – Paula story [1201]

Emotional and behavioural problems

Another recent Australian study found that children with behavioural or emotional problems lag behind in maths and reading and “are at high risk for academic failure”.  Hmm, behavioural problems.  Our website is full of stories about them.  Paula explains:

“Before the diet my son was in trouble at school every day, he was argumentative, angry, hyperactive … one of the naughtiest children in the class”

Then there are emotional problems, like this story – the family had done the diet for their 8 year old “rascal” and were surprised by the huge change in their older son:

“My 12 year old son’s severe depression turned out to be due to amines and is gone completely on the diet. He is achieving so much more at school.” [1070] 

Adolescents are affected too

A study in Western Australia found that school performance in adolescents is affected by diet. We agree. Years before that study, a teen named Russell wrote to us about how diet had given him back his old powerhouse brain:

“I am an 18 year old student. The diet has been immeasurably useful for me. I can now think better, clearer, and I can reason logically where before an idea would just revolve around in my head ...” [1019]

It’s worldwide

All over the world, researchers are suddenly finding that the Western diet is associated with poorer achievement and a “healthy” diet with better achievement. But what exactly is it about the western diet? A massive Korean study found:

Good: eating regular meals with fresh fruits, vegetables, milk
Bad: processed foods such as soft drinks, instant noodles, fast foods, sweets
Bad: skipping meals especially breakfast, eating unhealthy snack foods instead

Eat junk and flunk:  what exactly is the problem?

This is where researchers get fuzzy.  Ignoring years of earlier research about food chemicals, they say the problem may be due to missing nutrients.  But that doesn’t explain what every failsafer knows:

why does the diet work within days when you finally get it right?

Researchers always ask…

what are the good foods these kids are eating?  They don’t ask “what is it that that these kids are NOT eating when they eat vegetables 7 nights a week?”

We say …

the problem is due to additives (and for some children the natural food chemicals salicylates, amines and glutamates) in those junk foods – and some healthy foods - that are avoided in the RPAH elimination diet.  And that is why the diet can work so quickly.

“My son was diagnosed with ADHD and I started the diet. Amazingly the results were seen the next day when he actually completed a test at school (and received 100%) ....” – Victoria [643]

The ignored evidence timeline

1975: Food additives and salicylates can cause learning disability in children – first suggested by Californian Dr Ben Feingold 

1985: Significant improvements in behaviour and cognition were shown in an improved version of the Feingold diet by researchers from RPAH (Royal Prince Alfred Hospital) in Sydney. This is the approach we recommend.

1986: Massive improvements in school rankings on national achievement tests were seen by removing additives from school meals in 803 New York schools (for one million students) over 4 years. As well, 75,000 students were no longer classified as learning disabled. Lead researcher Dr S Schoenthaler commented:

 "No other school district reported such a large gain above the rest of the nation so quickly ..."

1994: Inattention is an important effect of food additives –  using an additive-free diet with challenges, Australian researchers  showed that inattention is one of the top 4 effects of additives (irritability, restlessness, inattention, sleep disturbance). Inattention leads to poor academic performance but is difficult for parents and teachers to recognise except through poor test results. Rowe and Rowe

1994: Additives not sugar cause children’s behaviour problems. In a careful study, children were put on additive-free diets and they all improved. They were then challenged with hidden sugar or artificial sweetener and there was no effect on their behaviour

2002: Not just junk food - potentially harmful additives are now in a healthy staple eaten every day by most children on Western diets - the bread preservative 282, often hidden as “no artificial preservatives”, cultured dextrose or cultured anything. It is avoided on the RPAH diet and was shown to affect some children’s behaviour and learning in my own study (Dengate & Ruben, 2002). Although I was monitoring behaviour, not learning ability, all except two of the 27 mothers noticed an improvement in concentration or reading during the 3 week diet. Comments included

“actually wanted to do homework and picked up a book and read it to me for the first time” – from Fed Up by Sue Dengate

2007: ‘Normal, healthy’ children can be affected and additives can reduce the ability of children to benefit from schooling according to Southampton University’s huge government funded study of a general population of children, not just children with ADHD. 

2010: Warning on labels: in Europe the following warning must now be displayed on any food product that contains any of the food dyes investigated by Southampton University.

"May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”

2014 Industry responds (a little): food giant Kraft to remove some food dyes (artificial colours) from some products 

Failsafe eating for powerhouse brains

“After discovering that he reacts severely to preservatives, colours, salicylates and amines, my son’s well being has completely changed. Not only is the household a calmer place now, so also is his classroom" - Paula, [1201]

“I started doing badly in school when I moved to the city and started eating more junk food like meat pies, ham etc … with failsafe eating I can be confident of having my old powerhouse brain back again.“ - Russell, [1019]

Why NAPLAN achievement is important

Asian countries top world achievement tables for education. According to the 2015 OECD rankings for 15 year olds, Singapore comes first, followed by Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. When the first tests were held in 2000, Australia ranked 6th for maths, 8th for science and 4th for reading (out of 41 countries). In the most recent tests, Australia had dropped to 19th for maths, 16th for science and 13th for reading (out of 65 countries). Despite large amounts of money being spent, the performance of Australian students in literacy and numeracy has flatlined for the past three years, according to 2016 NAPLAN data.  Read more

See more and scientific references

Visual evidence - three school trials of the food approach

VPalmersIsland        VNanaGlen        VCoomaNorth2007

Our blog post: Failsafe eating at school

Our blog post: Eat, Forget, Underachieve - maths and diet

Our factsheet: Schools go low additive

Diet & academic achievement studies:

Newcastle study
Burrows T et al, Associations between selected dietary behaviours and academic achievement: A study of Australian school aged children, Appetite, 2017;116:372-380.

Victorian study
Mundy L et al, One in five boys lagging behind peers at school, Journal of School Health, August 2017

Western Australian study
Nyaradi A et al, A Western dietary pattern is associated with poor academic performance in Australian adolescents. Nutrients. 2015 Apr 17;7(4):2961-82.

Korean study
Kim SY et al, Dietary Habits Are Associated With School Performance in Adolescents, Medicine (Baltimore),  2016;95(12):e3096.

The timeline studies:

Feingold - Feingold BF, Hyperkinesis and learning disabilities linked to artificial food flavors and colors, Am J Nurs, 1975;75(5):797-803.

RPAH elimination diet - Swain A et al, Salicylates, oligoantigenic diets, and behaviour, Lancet, 1985;6;2(8445):41-2.


NY City Schools - Schoenthaler, SJ, Doraz WE, Wakefield JA, The Impact of a Low Food Additive and Sucrose Diet on Academic Performance in 803 New York City Public Schools, International Journal of Biosocial Research, 1986; 8(2): 185-195

Sugar - Effects of diets high in sucrose or aspartame on the behavior and cognitive performance of children. Wolraich ML and others, N Engl J Med. 1994 Feb 3;330(5):301-7. Children were put on additive-free diets and their behaviour improved. They were then challenged with hidden sugar or artificial sweetener. CONCLUSION: "Even when intake exceeds typical dietary levels, neither dietary sucrose nor aspartame affects children's behavior or cognitive function." 

Bread preservative - Dengate S, Ruben A, Controlled trial of cumulative behavioural effects of a common bread preservative, J Paediatr Child Health. 2002;38(4):373-6.

Southampton University - McCann D et al, Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial, Lancet,2007;370(9598):1560-7.

Below, scroll through full reader stories mentioned above.

[1201] This diet is truly life changing (July 2013)

I would like to say a very big thank you for helping change not only my son's life dramatically but in turn the whole family.

Last year I put my eight year old boy onto your elimination diet. Before the diet my son was in trouble at school every day, he was argumentative, angry, hyperactive and overall his behaviour was negative and every day was a huge struggle. After discovering that he reacts severely to preservatives, colours, salicylates and amines, his overall well being has completely changed.

Not only is the household a much more calmer place now, also so is his class room. He would of been considered to be one of the naughtiest children in the class but now he is achieving amazing results at school. He competed in the National Maths Competition and got a distinction (finished in the top 11 % in all of Australia), he also achieved very highly in the NAPLAN and has amazed his music teacher by performing songs that are way above his year level.

Not only is he a much happier boy, so are his siblings and both my husband and I. Not only has this diet given him a much better chance for a successful future he is living testimony that this diet is truly life changing.  - Paula

[1019] Powerhouse brain (May 2011)

I am an 18 year old student. The diet has been immeasurably useful for me. I can now think better, clearer, and I can reason logically where before an idea would just revolve around in my head. I can now do household chores! This might not seem too momentous, but just ask anyone in my household. I actually have fun cleaning up the kitchen now!

I have ventured forth from the den of my room, and have spent less time skulking around the Net and more time socialising ... Thanks to the diet, I am going to try again to pass Year 12 next year, so I can go to university.

It's quite interesting to trace the time in my life when I started doing badly in school. It was the exact time that I moved to the city, and started eating more junk food like meat pies, ham etc. I continued to do worse and worse in school until I dropped out of Year 13 last semester. Now, I can be confident of having my old powerhouse brain back again. – Russell, by email

[643] Diet and ADHD - his teacher asked what I had done (May 2008)

My son had been diagnosed with ADHD last year but I have refused medication. After picking him up from school early again, I thought I may have no option but to consider medication as a serious option. I google searched and your book popped up and from the afternoon I started my kids on the diet. Amazingly the results were seen the next day when my son actually completed a test at school (and received 100%). He never would sit at a desk long enough to even start a test let alone ace one. His teacher asked what had I done to my son because she never had seen him so engaged in the classroom.

I purchased the book the next weekend and started to try to learn more about the options available. It is difficult and easy at the same time, and well worth it. Today my children had a treat (slice of non-failsafe shop-purchased cake) and I could see the adverse effects almost immediately, I know I have to continue with the diet if my children (especially my son) are to succeed and I believe I am lucky I found failsafe - Victoria, ACT.

[1332] ADHD and diet: “greatly improved in all areas academically” (May 2015)

I took my son for his first ADHD paediatric psychiatrist visit since being on failsafe. Although the psychiatrist had approved taking him off medication he didn't have it in his notes so we decided to not tell them until after testing that he wasn't medicated. Well, the results were the best he's had in over 7 years. He had greatly improved in all areas academically and his brain function test showed he was much less distracted. These results are better than any he ever had when being medicated so we are very proud of our young man. So glad we decided to take the giant step into the failsafe world. As daunting as it was, the results speak for themselves and it's like second nature these days.

He's very proud of himself too. The absolute biggest thing for us is that he has friends now. No one use to want to play with the naughty kid and I think it's like a domino effect. Each positive thing creates another positive thing - Larissa

(More than 200 people liked this on the facebook group!)

[1310] Failsafe eating improves writing, listening and hearing (February 2015)

This is just a post to encourage those parents who are persevering with Failsafe eating for their children to try and help them.. here are pictures of my 7yo son’s homework (see main illustration at top of page).. one week apart.. one week he was Failsafe, the next week.. Not so much. I don't think I need to point out which is which..This is just one reason why we choose Failsafe. Anything that helps him is well worth the effort - Susan

Extract from story 1273

Our family was falling apart over our very bright 7 y.o. son's loud, argumentative, nonsensical melodramatic behaviour. Failsafe eating returned him to the calm, loving, intelligent child we thought we'd lost. From struggling with Year 2 Maths he is now a self-sufficient straight A student with an academic scholarship for Yrs 11 & 12, plans to study Law, his driver's licence - and a girlfriend! - Belinda

2 extracts from story 356

I have often thought that my children’s academic success [three teenagers] has something to do with the fact that they just don't consume the same amount of daily junk compared to the average kid. – Vic

I just wish I had done this YEARS ago! It is a delight to see my two kids cooperating and playing nicely with each other as long as they are eating properly! – by email

[1070] The real surprise: depression in my 12 yo was due to amines (September 2011

I came to your talk last year for my 8 year old son who was a little rascal and full on at school. We started the diet as a family for him-  and his problem turned out to be artificial colours and some other additives.

But the real surprise was my 12 year old son who was suffering from severe depression and had just started with a psychologist. He started slowly getting better and at first we thought the psychologist was helping but it was because we had changed our diet. His severe depression turned out to be due to amines and is gone completely on the diet. He is now a beautiful, happy boy. It wasn’t until we ate the old foods again that I realised what life had been like, and saw the difference
. I would tell others to stick with it and persist because improvements can be subtle and gradual. My boys are achieving so much more at school.  Your work has changed their future, their lives and ours forever and we are profoundly grateful.

[097] Eliminating amines was the secret … (November 2000)

School is in session again, and our kids are doing things they couldn't possibly have done last semester. Mary is bringing home perfect math and spelling tests, with a commensurate improvement in self-esteem. As I watch her do homework, I can almost see her IQ improve each week.

… Meantime, John is spending most of his day in his mainstream classroom. Last year he spent 40 minutes in class, story time, and then became too hyper, and had to return to his special ed room … He is socially appropriate, and is on-track academically  … And what's the secret? Eliminating amines – Karl

[188] Our failsafe home (September 2002)

This week mum has started us on a failsafe diet with foods that have no colours or preservatives in them, I think it's good because I might get less migraines and not feel sick as often and maybe even do better in school. Hopefully this will help my sister who has learning disabilities and maybe she'll be able to read like me.

It's amazing how many colours and preservatives are in food, I checked all the labels when I went shopping with mum and I helped clean out the pantry too. Mum made some sherbert and it tasted like the real thing but without the horrible colours and preservatives in it. The new diet is good, it's fun to try out new things and they taste good as well.

Next week we are going to clean out the bathroom and laundry cupboards and buy more friendly shampoos and toothpaste and it's goodbye and into the garbage bin with all the bad things.

I wish our Prime Minister would realise what these things are doing to us - Caroline, aged 9.