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Goldfish have a longer attention span


While the internet argues whether humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish (1), an Australian study found that inattention is one of the top four behavioural effects of food additives, along with irritability, restlessness, and sleep disturbance (2).

Compared to bad behaviour, parents don't complain much about short attention span because it is not as difficult to live with.

The trouble is, short attention span leads to learning delays at school – and these can cause school failure. 

In 2013, a study showed that children with better attention span at age 4 were more likely to finish college by age 25 (3).

It is common to blame inattention on too much screen time (4), but our readers say short attention span and inability to concentrate can be improved by diet.
Reader reports

“My son now 3½ was diagnosed with Autism at 2½…he was always active…and he had no attention span…His biggest problem is salicylates and colourings…Three days on the elimination diet (through RPA) and he was a changed child…he is now far more teachable, with…the ability to pay attention to things better than before…” – from story [215]

“Since starting failsafe two months ago, my son has had a huge turnaround...Last week, he played his first basketball game as his new self. He always wanted to play, but had little attention span. Usually he would vague off in the middle of the game and would never listen to instructions from his coach...(This time) he was amazed at his new ability…“ - Michelle from story [278]

“With the advent of the new diet…we discovered that my son has quite a talent for sport. Before the diet, he didn't have the attention span to stay between the white lines on a running track...Within the first 6 months…he went on to represent his school in swimming and athletics…this year, as a 9 year old, he has already broken records...he has his sights firmly on the Olympic games…" - from story [901]

“My son…went to kindy for five terms and hated every day. He escaped quite a few times…wouldn't interact with other children, and had a small attention span…he has just started at school this term… your book…has helped us more than any doctor...” – from story [348]

“When our 8-year-old daughter was a toddler…eating home made bread, she had a great attention span…The introduction of preservative 282 in purchased bread coincided with a decline in our daughter’s abilities…her performance decreased…she was unable to concentrate for more than about one minute at a time…we returned to our bread maker…After about ten days, we had a different child. She started concentrating! She finished in 10 minutes what she previously couldn’t finish in 4 hours…“ – from story [329]      (see **WARNING** below)

“I have ADHD and when I was following this diet I was so much better … it was easy to think and concentrate ... it works definitely do it” – Ash from story [1503]

My…son was like a eczema-covered cyclone, he was looking like being medicated for adhd…Within months of starting the elimination diet…I had a different kid, one that could concentrate… - Jo from story [1497]
“When I cut out the cheese (with annatto 160b) my son was more cooperative and had a longer attention span” – from story [1333]

“My three-year-old son had a severe speech delay, many behavioural problems…Four weeks after starting the elimination diet, his behaviour improved each day, the tantrums decreased dramatically, he became calmer, his attention span increased…The difference in him is so dramatic the paediatrician was in shock…” – from story [540]

What you can do

Everyone is different.

For some people it can be as simple as avoiding one additive, such as the bread preservative (280-282)

**WARNING** the bread preservative (calcium propionate 282) is now often replaced by sodium propionate 281 misleadingly listed as cultured dextrose, cultured wheat flour or 'cultured' or 'fermented' anything and claims of No artificial preservatives -  but it can have the same bad side effects. Read more...

Often, more than one food chemical is involved. The best way to find out exactly what affects you is a 2-3 week trial of the RPAH diagnostic elimination diet (5), preferably under the supervision of an experienced dietitian.


1. Kevin McSpadden, You now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish,  Time magazine May 14, 2015 https://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/ ; Simon Maybin, Busting the attention span myth, BBC March 10, 2017 https://www.bbc.com/news/health-38896790

2. Rowe KS, Rowe KJ. Synthetic food coloring and behavior: a dose response effect in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, repeated-measures study. J Pediatr. 1994 Nov;125(5 Pt 1):691-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7965420  

3. McClelland MM et al, Relations between preschool attention span-persistence and age 25 educational outcomes, Early Child Res Q, 2013;28(2):314-324. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23543916

4. David Daley, Children’s attention spans at risk from too much screen time, February 17, 2014, https://theconversation.com/childrens-attention-spans-at-risk-from-too-much-screen-time-23051

5. RPAH, Diagnostic elimination diet handbook, 2019, https://www.slhd.nsw.gov.au/rpa/allergy/resources/foodintol/handbook.html

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Food intolerance

Some of the many symptoms of food intolerance that can be helped by diet:

Airways: Asthma, Stuffy blocked or runny nose/ nasal polyps, Frequent nose bleeds, Catarrh, chronic throat-clearing, Sinusitis, Frequent ear infections, Frequent tonsillitis, Frequent colds and flu, symptoms of Samter's Triad, hayfever, allergic rhinitis Skin: Eczema, Urticaria (hives), Cradlecap, Other skin rashes, Angioedema (swollen lips, eyes, tongue), Geographic tongue, Pruritis (itching), Rosaceae, Allergic shiners (dark circles under eyes), Pallor (pale skin), Flushing, Excessive sweating, Body odour, Sore vagina in children, Alopecia (patchy baldness) Digestive system: Irritable bowel symptoms (IBS), Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), Recurrent mouth ulcers, Indigestion, Nausea, Bad breath, Vomiting, Diarrhea, Stomach ache, Bloating, Reflux in babies, adults, Constipation, Colic in babies, adults, Sluggish bowel syndrome (feeling of "more to come"), Encopresis, Soiling (sneaky poos), Dairy intolerance, Gluten and wheat intolerance, Eating disorders (ed), anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder (BED)  Bladder: Bedwetting, Daytime incontinence, Urinary urgency, Recurrent inflammation (cystitis) Skeletal: Growing pains, Gout, Arthritis, joint pain, arthralgia Eyes: Nystagmus (involuntary movement), Blurred vision Muscles: Low muscle tone, Myalgia (muscle pain), Tics (involuntary movement), Tremor, Leg 'jiggling', Heart: Rapid heart beat, Heart palpitations, Cardiac arrhythmias, Pseudo heart attack (feeling of impending doom, chest pressure, pain down arm), Tachycardia (fast heart beat), Angina-type pain, HHT Central nervous system: Headaches or migraines, unexplained tiredness, Chronic fatigue, Feeling 'hung-over', Confusion, Dizziness, Agitation, Tinnitus (noises in ear), HyperacusisAuditory sensory processing disorder (ASPD), Paraesthesia (pins and needles), Dysaesthesia (numbness), Hypoglycemia, Salicylate-induced hypoglycemia, Epileptic seizures, Fits, Sensory symptoms of multiple sclerosis, Scents and perfume sensitivity, Symptoms of lupus Anxiety: Panic attacks, Depression, Obsessive ruminations (repetitively focusing on bad feelings and experiences from the past), Self harm, Suicidal thoughts, actions, teeth grinding (bruxism) Impaired memory: Vague or forgetful, Unable to concentrate, Won't persevere, Unmotivated, Disorganised, Easily distracted, Difficulty reading and writing Speech: Loud voice (no volume control), Speech hard to understand, Speech delay, Selective mutism, Stuttering, Repetitive noises, Talks too much (empty chatter) Coordination: Poor handwriting, Poor coordination, Frequent accidents, Vertigo Sleep: Difficulty falling asleep, Restless legs syndrome (RLS), Persistent night waking, Insomnia, Nightmares/night terrors/sleepwalking, Sleepless babies, Sleep apnoea Mood: Brain snaps, Mood swings, Premenstrual tension, Grizzly or unhappy, Cries easily or often, Irritable, Uncooperative Oppositional defiance: ODD, Loses temper, Argumentative, Refuses requests, Defies rules, Deliberately annoys others, Blames others for own mistakes, Touchy, easily annoyed, Angry, resentful Other behaviour: ADHD, ADD, Autism, Aspergers, Inattentive, easily bored, unmotivated, 'Unable to entertain himself', Restless, fidgety or overactive, Head banging, Hyperactivity, Fights with siblings, Difficulty making friends, Destructive, aggressive, Unreasonable, Tantrums, Demanding, never satisfied, Disruptive, Discipline is ineffective, Pervasive Development Disorder

Some causes of food intolerance:

Food additives: Artificial colours: (food dyes, artificial colors) tartrazine 102 (E102, FD&C Yellow No.5), quinoline yellow 104 (E104), sunset yellow 110 (E110, FD&C Yellow No.6), azorubine, carmoisine 122 (E122), amaranth 123 (E123), ponceau, brilliant scarlet 124 (E124), erythrosine 127 (E127, FD&C Red No.3), allura red 129 (E129, FD&C Red No.40), indigotine, indigo carmine 132 (E132, FD&C Blue No.2), brilliant blue 133 (E133, FD&C Blue No.1), green S, food green, acid brilliant green 142 (E142), fast green FCF 143 (E143, FD&C Green No.3), brilliant black 151 (E151), brown, chocolate brown 155 (E155)  Natural colours: (colors) Annatto (annatto extracts, bixin, norbixin, 160b, E160b) Preservatives: Sorbates: (sorbic acid 200, E200, sodium sorbate 201, E201, potassium sorbate 202, E202, calcium sorbate 203, E203) Benzoates, hydroxybenzoates, parabens: (including benzoic acid 210, E210, sodium benzoate 211, E211, potassium benzoate 212, E212, calcium benzoate 213, E213, ethyl para-hydroxybenzoate 214, E214, sodium ethyl para-hydroxybenzoate 215, E215, propylparaben 216, E216, propyl 4 hydroxybenzoate 217, E217, methylparaben 218, E218) Sulfites, bisulfites, metabisulfites: (200-228, sulphites, sulphur dioxide, sulfur dioxide 220, E220, sodium sulphite 221, E221, sodium bisulphite 222, E222, sodium metabisulphite 223, E223, potassium metabisulphite 224, E224, potassium sulphite 225, E225, calcium sulphite 226, E226, calcium bisulfite 227, E227, potassium bisulphite 228, E228) Nitrates & nitrites: (249-252, potassium nitrite 249, E249, sodium nitrite 250, E250, sodium nitrate 251, E251, potassium nitrate 252, E252 Propionates: (bread preservative, mould inhibitor 280-283: propionic acid 280, E280, sodium propionate 281, E281, calcium propionate 282, E282, potassium propionate 283, E283, 'natural' preservatives in bread, cultured or fermented wheat, dextrose, sugar, flour, whey or anything) Synthetic antioxidants: Gallates 310, 311, 312 (E310, E311, E312), tBHQ 319, E319, BHA 320, E320, BHT 321, E321 Flavour enhancers: (flavor enhancers) glutamic acid and all glutamates, MSG monosodium glutamate 620-625, yeast extract, hydrolysed vegetable protein HVP, disodium guanylate 627 (E627, DSG, GMP), disodium inosinate 631 (E631, DSI, IMP), ribonucleotides 635 (E635, I&G, nucleotides)  Flavours: (flavors)  Natural food chemicals: Salicylates: salicylic acid, sodium salicylate, acetylsalicylic acid Biogenic amines: vasoactive amines (tyramine, phenylethylamine, histamine and others) Glutamates:  Natural foods: Dairy: milk, yoghurt, cheese, butter, lactose-free milks Wheat or Gluten: (wheat, rye, barley, oats) Soy: Sugar free sweeteners:Sugar free sweeteners: polyols, sorbitol, mannitol

On this website, failsafe refers to foods that are Free of Additives and Low in Salicylates, Amines and Flavour Enhancers. Note that copyright applies to the commercial use of the term "failsafe" in the food and health context so as to control inappropriate use by the food and health industries.