Nutrition v Behaviour

Infant and Children, nutrition | July 13, 2017 | Author: Naturopath

Children, behaviour, infants

Nutrition v Behaviour

When children are normally well behaved, and then turn into little monsters after having certain types of food it’s hard to believe that there’s no relationship between diet and behaviour.

Nutrition is usually thought to be important for physical health, but mental health must be considered as equally important. Good nutrition promotes the normal healthy development and functioning of all systems. The brain and central nervous system are no exception.

The latest evidence shows the links between nutritional status and childhood disorders, depression, aggressive and anti-social behaviour. 

nutrition v behaviour tantrumChildren’s behaviour can be disruptive and difficult at times. For some children, serious behaviour difficulties become a pattern that can include acting impulsively, reacting with aggression, refusing to follow reasonable directions, and defying adult authority.

These behavioural difficulties interfere with children’s social and academic development and can have serious consequences for their mental health.

It is well known that diet alone is not the sole cause for these behavioural problems such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But a poor diet certainly plays a role in exacerbating the symptoms of these behavioural conditions.

Foods known to affect behaviour

The types of foods that are known to affect behaviour the most are any foods containing additives, such as artificial colours or preservatives, along with anything containing sugar, wheat or dairy.

nutrition v behaviouOver the past 50 years, chemical dyes used in foods has increased by a whopping 500%. A total of nine synthetic dyes are used by food manufacturers, but 3 dyes (Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6) make up 90% of the market.

These dyes are everywhere, from cereal to toothpaste, apple sauce to cough syrup.

Warning labels for synthetic food dyes are required in much of Europe, and concerns about the dyes have even caused some governments to ban their use. But they are still used without warning in Australia.

A study published in The Lancet journal concluded that a variety of common food dyes, and the preservative sodium benzoate (found in many soft drinks, fruit juices and salad dressings) cause some children to become measurably more hyperactive and distractible.

The study also found that the E-numbered food dyes (such as tartrazine (E102), ponceau 4R (E124), sunset yellow (E110), carmoisine (E122), quinoline yellow (E104) and allura red AC (E129) do as much damage to children’s brains as lead in gasoline, resulting in a significant reduction in IQ.

Food additives and ADHD

Professor Jim Stevenson from Southampton University in the UK has led a research group to discover a link between food additives and increased hyperactivity in otherwise normal children. Stevenson’s interest in the area came about when he discovered a positive affect with restricting diets, including removing food additives, in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

nutrition v behaviourThe researchers found that these additives had a small but significant effect on the overall level of hyperactivity among two groups of children – one group aged three years, and the other aged 8/9 years. The extent of behavioural response varied. In some children it was small but for other children it was substantial.

So even if the behavioural response from eating these additives is small, it is still preventable.

This Southampton study was criticised because there were six different additives mixed together making it difficult to work out which additive is solely responsible or whether it is the combination of the additives. The food regulatory authorities in Europe and Australia weren’t completely convinced with the findings from this study hence they are still being used today.

ADHD is often misdiagnosed. The national rate of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or ADHD (which now encompasses attention deficit disorder or ADD) diagnosis increased an average of 3% per year from 1997 to 2006, and an average of 5.5% per year from 2003 to 2007. In 2007, approximately 9.5% of children 4-17 years of age (5.4 million) were diagnosed with ADHD.

nutrition v behaviourWhile the causes of behavioural issues are likely to vary, numerous studies suggest that certain ingredients, particularly those found in processed foods, are triggering behavioural problems in children. 

With 90% of the average western food budget going towards processed foods, and the astounding spike in behavioural issues, this is a serious public health concern.

Anti-social behaviour

In a recent review by Professor Benton the impact of diet on anti-social, violent and criminal behaviour was found to improve with the supplementation of omega-3 fatty acid DHA there was decreased hostility and aggression.

Aspartame has been linked to an array of emotional and behavioural disorders. High levels of aspartame can alter serotonin levels, which can lead to behavioural problems, anxiety, and other emotional disorders. In some studies, the side effects were so severe that doctors were forced to prematurely end the studies.

A healthy, balanced diet will make a massive difference in children with behavioural problems. Ensuring small frequent healthy meals, lots of water, fresh fruits and vegetables and a high intake of essential fatty acids

Omega- 3

nutrition v behaviourMost research into the relationship between foods and behaviour focuses on getting children to eat more oily fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids positively influence the signals sent back and forth between the brain and parts of the body. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is one of the two main types of fish oil and has been shown to stabilise mood swings and generally improve concentration, behaviour and learning abilities of children with ADHD

Iron and Zinc

Iron and zinc deficiencies have both been implicated in children’s behavioural issues. From birth to two years of age, the brain undergoes rapid development, as a result iron deficiency is common and can result in long term problems with attention and mood.

The research also shows that many children with ADHD have lower levels of zinc in their blood. Improving zinc levels in children with ADHD has been shown to reduce symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity and impaired socialisation


Eileen Cormier, PhD, RN; Jennifer Harrison Elder, PhD, RN, FAAN. Diet and Child Behavior Problems: Fact or Fiction? Paediatric Nursing. 2007; 33(2):138-143.

France Bellisle, et al. Effects of diet on behaviour and cognition in children. British Journal of Nutrition. Volume 92, Issue S2 October 2004, pp. S227-S232

Christopher K.Varley M.D. Diet and the Behavior of Children with Attention Deficit Disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry. Volume 23, Issue 2, March 1984, Pages 182-185

backBack to Blog Home