Can Food Affect Children’s Behaviour?


It sometimes seems that our human behaviour revolves around food. Food and mealtimes are such an important social component of today’s society and brings enjoyment to us in many ways, from sharing company of friends to bringing families together. Food is much more than a daily need.

There are many aspects relating to food that can affect children’s behaviour. Factors as meal skipping, allergies and food intolerance can impact on behavior. Relationship of these factors to conditions such as ADHD and autism are also currently being examined.

crying-boy-smIn past decades there has been a change in our food supply with an increasing number of processed foods. Processed foods fit in with busy lifestyles. Packaged foods are often an inclusion in children’s school. Many of these foods contain artificial colours and preservatives, which are thought to cause many behavioural problems.

Experienced teachers have noticed increased behavioural difficulties, and there has been an increase in the number of cases of ADHD being diagnosed. Some believe that many of these changes are due to allergies, intolerances and food additives in today’s food supply. The area looking at reactions to food is still controversial and there is still a lot of research going on, this article looks at food and how it can affect children’s behaviour.

Strangely enough, beliefs that sugar causes hyperactivity in children has not been proven in studies.

Common Triggers of Behavioural Problems

Skipping Meals

Missing meals, especially breakfast occurs in up to 1 in 4 children. Teachers often report that those children who have skipped breakfast are less attentive and more disruptive in class. Studies have shown that children who eat breakfast retain information better.

Breakfast is so important because when we wake, our body has been fasting for up to 12 hours, this is long enough for our blood sugars to get depleted by the body and drop to a low level. Breakfast allows for the blood sugars to return to a proper functioning level and takes the body out of fasting mode. Those people who skip breakfast often don’t have the energy to function properly, often become tired, moody and tend to compensate by choosing less healthy alternatives later in the day, often high in fat and sugar.

Food Intolerance

The prevalence of food intolerance is unknown, but it is estimated to occur in 10% of the population2. Food intolerances can cause feelings of tiredness and mood change. Children can become irritable and restless and any existing behavioural problems can be aggravated. According to Sue Dengate, Author of The Failsafe Cookbook4, common behavioural problems include irritability, restlessness, inattention and sleep disturbances and are more common than hyperactivity.

Many foods contain chemicals; many of these are naturally occurring preservatives, colours and flavour enhancers. Food intolerance is a reaction to a food, or a food chemical- whether naturally occurring (e.g. salicylates, amines, glutamate, monosodium glutamate (MSG)) or artificially added (e.g. preservatives, colours, flavours). People who are sensitive to natural food chemicals are also very likely to be sensitive to food additives such as artificial colours, flavours and added preservatives. Children’s behaviour is most likely to be affected by salicylates, closely followed by preservatives, then colours.

Foods with high salicylates are:

  • Vegetables – Tomato and tomato products, gerkin, button mushrooms, radish, olives, capsicum and cucumber
  • Fruit – Dried fruits, most berries, oranges, apricot, rockmelon and plums
  • Sweet foods – Honey, licorice, peppermints, chewing gum

Foods with high amine content are:

  • Bananas, cheese

Foods with naturally occurring monosodium glutamate include mushrooms, tomato and tomato products, strong cheese and yeast extracts.

Food reactions are dose dependent meaning that a small amount of the food may not cause a reaction, but eating small amounts regularly can cause a build-up of the food chemical and the symptoms develop after a few days. Food intolerances, in contrast to allergies do not involve the immune system. The only way to discover which chemical(s) are responsible for the intolerance is through an elimination diet under the direction of a dietitian with experience in the area.

Food Allergy

The prevalence of food allergy is estimated to be up to 7.5% in infants, 1-2% in children over 3 years and 1% or less in adults.

Food allergies occur when the immune system produces a hypersensitive antibody response to food. Food allergy is mainly a problem for infants, toddlers and young children with the most common food allergens being peanut and other nuts, egg, milk, seafood, sesame, wheat and soy. Over 90% of cases involving young children involve eczema, and there is usually a family history of asthma, hay fever and/ or eczema. Most children grow out of their egg and milk allergies before they reach school age, nut and seafood allergies can persist. Reactions may include hyperactivity, but can be much more sever, even life threatening.

Which Food Additives Should be Avoided?


  • Artificial: 102, 104, 107, 110, 122, 123, 124, 127, 128, 129, 132, 133, 142, 151, 155,
  • Natural: 160b annatto


  • 200-203 Sorbates
  • 210-213 Benzoates
  • 220-228 Sulphites
  • 249-252 Nitrates & nitrites
  • 280-283 Propionates


  • 310-312 Gallates
  • 319-321 TBHQ, BHA, BHT

Flavour Enhancers

  • 620-625 Glutamates incl. MSG
  • 627 Disodium guanylate
  • 631 Disodium inosinate
  • 635 Ribonucleotides
  • HVP hydrolysed vegetable protein
  • Yeast extract

Artificial Sweeteners

  • 951 Aspartame


The possibility that food additives and natural food constituents could affect children’s behaviour, particularly those with ADHD, was first raised in the mid-1970s.

One British study showed that 60% of children diagnosed with hyperactivity had worse behavioural problems when exposed to food additives, compared to only 12% of children without hyperactivity. Other problems experienced after eating food with additives included eczema, and increased ear and/or chest infections.

Use of an elimination diet and / or the restriction of food additives in the diet of children with ADHD have had some effect in controlling symptoms. An elimination diet is where the child, under the guidance of a dietitian, consumes a low food chemical diet for 3 to 4 weeks to see if symptoms disappear. Once symptom free for 7 days in a row then test foods can be introduced one at a time to see which chemicals in the diet cause reactions.

Studies indicate towards the use of a low food chemical diets to treat ADHD for preschoolers and those with diagnosed allergic symptoms. There seems good reason to try diet therapy as part of a holistic approach including medical, educational, and behavioural treatments. However, there is a need for more research into the use of diets to treat ADHD.

Where to get Help

If you suspect that your child has an allergy or food intolerance you can get a referral from your doctor to see your nearest allergy testing unit. Testing for allergies includes a skin prick test (SPT) or the radioallergosorbent test (RAST) and intolerances are detected using an elimination diet.

If your child has an allergy, especially a nut allergy, it is important that his or her school has an anaphylaxis policy, this is where no nut products are sold in the school canteen, and no children in the school are to bring any nut products to school. A nut allergy can have fatal consequences; sensitivity can be so severe that a child with a nut allergy may have a reaction after being breathed on by someone who has just eaten nuts.

It is important that teachers at the school are trained in how to use an epipen® (a shot of adrenalin used in the case of anaphylaxis). This training is available for teachers and all teachers can be trained in one session. Visit for more details.

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