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Junk Food:  Can What We Eat Change How We Behave?

Pam O’Harra
EN 202 Dr. Masiello
October 25,1999

Ice cream, chocolate, McDonald’s, potato chips, and hot dogs, all symbolize a taboo in our society. Honey, wheat germ, fruit juices, and sprouts, take on a certain manna in our society. For years, our society has been involved with a health food movement. We are carrying this movement with us to every new day, every new year, and now into a new century. As we go into the new century, "our emphasis, is on "wellness" and prevention rather than on illness and curing" (Dubisch, 1999, p.325). Nutrition plays a big role in our plan for preventing illness, and just not physical illness but psychological illness as well. As a mother, I know that nutrition plays a big role in my children’s lives. Did you ever look at a child who has just eaten two chocolate bars, a bag of chips, and drank a big glass of soda, to wash it all down with? They are terrible! If my children eat a well balanced diet throughout the day, they are mostly calm and rational children. They are easy to talk to, and they listen to almost everything I say. On the other hand, give them a little extra sugar and they run around the house yelling and screaming, throwing things, fighting amongst themselves and in general are very anxious and agitated. It is because of this type of behavior that it is important to explore the possibility that junk food does have an adverse effect on our behavior.

Bad eating habits not only affect our bodies physiologically but also can trigger psychological problems. One of the ways this has been evidenced is in an article entitled sugar neurosis. In this article it states "Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) is a medical reality that can trigger wife beating, divorce, even suicide" (Dubisch, 1999, p.329). If hypoglycemia can produce all of these horrible outcomes, how many other nutritionally triggered problems do we face every day in our society due to the large quantities of junk food that we ingest? If we all changed our eating habits and started eating all the "good" things for us, how would that change us as people? There have been testimonials from people who have changed their diets, and have had overwhelming satisfaction with the improvement of their behavior. Two of these individuals were offenders of the law and they had their diets changed while in prison. They proceeded to tell "what it was like to find that good nutrition was their bridge from the wrong side of the law and a frustrated, unhappy life to a vibrant and useful one" (Dubisch, 1999, p.329).

There have been studies done on junk food and behavior, and more specifically, on antisocial behavior. One of these studies was conducted in Coosa Valley Regional Detention Center in Alabama. This study involved taking away junk food and soft drinks and replacing them with nutritious snacks and fruit juices. They also eliminated high-sugar content desserts and cereals. Out of 28 juvenile offenders who were in for a short stay, who experienced unmodified low-sugar diets, 35% resulted in a lower incidence of antisocial behavior. Out of 39 Long-term offenders, 45% resulted in a lower incidence of antisocial behavior. The improvements in behavior may have been due to reduced sugar, the addition of vitamins and minerals, the elimination of food additives, or the synergistic effect between sugar and additives (Schoenthaler, 1983). The important thing to realize here is that a change had taken place. Replacement of junk foods with nutritional meals and supplements had a significant effect on these individuals’ behavior.

Junk food does not only have to be a cause of a problem but can also be an addition to an already existing problem. For instance, a study that I found most interesting was on a child who was exposed to crack through his parents. He had already suffered symptoms from the exposure. This young boy experienced very radical and aggressive behavior. Through therapy, his aggression had been almost completely eradicated. There were still a couple of trouble spots. He had occasional periods of ant-social behavior or extreme hyperactivity, especially in school. Through interviewing his grandmother, she indicated that she thought her grandson was abnormally sensitive to sugar and "junk food" and went on to say that when these kinds of snacks were dispensed at school, "he climbed the walls"(Burch, 1992, p.4). With this young boy, they took all sugar from him for several days and slowly added sugar back into his diet to research the effects it had. No results had been stated, although it was said that their pilot work suggested that crack babies are hypersensitive to a number of substances, and sugar may be one of them (Burch, 1992).

Most of these examples that have been given have been focused on the younger generation. Can it affect adults too? Well, I feel it affects everybody young or old. One of the ways we know this is through studies of people who already suffer from a pre-existing problem. For instance, nutrition and the impact of junk food have been linked to behavioral problems such as panic disorder and ADHD. The reduction in junk food such as chocolate, artificial sweeteners, and carbohydrates has been known to decrease symptoms in both of these disorders (Whaley & Wong, 1999). There was a study done on panic disorder, which shows us that side effects from junk food can arise and be the cause of much distress in an adult life also. Caffeine ingestion and dietary habits are both known to produce somatic sensations (sweating, tremors, tachycardia, numbness, and dizziness) associated with panic attacks, and both have been linked to panic disorders (Salzer, Berenbaum, 1993). The study was done on a woman, who suffered from panic disorder. She did not have time in her life to eat regular meals and therefore consumed a lot of junk food, which was high in carbohydrates. Salzer and Berenbaum hypothesized that this woman’s caffeine ingestion and dietary habits led to somatic sensations, which when misinterpreted, led to her panic. By changing her diet and eliminating the foods that were high in carbohydrates, her panic attacks went from several in one week to not having any panic attacks in one week (Salzer, Berenbaum, 1993). The somatic symptoms listed above would definitely have an effect on anyone’s behavior. Reactions to these symptoms could possibly take on any type of emotional response not, just panic. One could also experience anger, excitability, or anti-social behavior. This is why a healthy well balanced diet is important, to maintain proper body functioning which in turn provides a healthy state of mind and acceptable behavior.

I feel that nutrition and behavior need to be studied more in depth. Research on this issue is very little and we need to take it more seriously. We’re moving into the new century with wellness and prevention being our main focus. What we eat and how we act are two major factors that determine our physiological and psychological well being. We need to find out more about how one affects the other. There is every indication that junk food is a factor in any type of abnormal behavior, but there are really no hard facts yet. Hopefully more research on this issue will be carried into the new century with us as well.


Burch, M.R. (1992). Behavioral treatment of drug exposed infants: analyzing and treating aggression. Child Today, 21(1), pp. 1-5.

Dubisch, J. (1999). You are what you eat. In D.J. Hickey (Ed.), Figures of thought for college writers (pp.323-336). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

Salzer, M.S. and Berenbaum, H. (1994). Somatic sensations, anxiety, and control in panic disorder. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 25(1), pp. 75-80.

Schoenthaler, S.J. (1983). The Alabama diet-behavior program: An empirical evaluation at the Coosa Valley Regional Detention Center. International Journal of Biosocial Research, 5(2), pp79-87.

Whaley and Wong, D.L.(1999). Nursing care of infants and children. St, Louis: Mosby, p.871.

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Williams:  Touch | O'Harra:  Race | O'Harra: Patient Care  | O'Harra:  Junk Food |
Kretschman:  Child Abuse  | Gilkey:   Religion

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