Can Nutrition Affect Children’s Behaviour?

Can Nutrition Affect Children’s Behaviour?

The influence of diet on the behaviour of children is a common narrative in the media, and theories about the way that nutrition can affect a child's growth, mood and learning are an integral feature of parental folklore.

However, in reality, many of these stories and ideas do not stand up to scientific scrutiny and in this article, we will examine the existing evidence.

What Foods Are Important for the Growing Brain?

According to the British Dietetic Association (BDA), the diets of children in Britain often fail to provide adequate amounts of the nutrients that are needed for the proper development of the brain.
 
The BDA says that the majority of British children would do well to reduce the amount of fat and sugar they eat whilst increasing their intake of fruit and vegetables.
 
The link between a person's nutrition during childhood and their health as an adult is well established. It also understood that that the foods eaten by a child can affect their mood, behaviour and learning.
 
The nutritional criteria for optimum brain development are covered by the general healthy eating advice that is given to parents regarding healthy eating practices for their offspring.
 
The primary facets of a prudent diet for children are summarised below:
  • A minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables per day
  • Each meal should be based on a starchy carbohydrate food, and whole grain versions should be chosen as often as possible
  • Include some dairy products, such as milk yoghurt and fromage frais
  • Eat adequate protein, and include foods such as beans, meat and eggs
  • Eat two portions of fish every week, and include one portion of oily fish
  • Limit intake of saturated fat and choose unsaturated oils
  • Drink enough fluid, and choose calorie free options

Should I Give My Child an Omega 3 Supplement?

Omega 3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids (EFAs) that are needed for the normal development of the human brain, and it has been suggested that consuming fish during early childhood is particularly beneficial.
 
There are a number of foods that provide omega 3 EFAs, but oily fish is probably the best dietary source. It is important to remember that fish provides a range of nutrients, but specially formulated children's supplements offer a means of increasing the intake of omega 3 EFAs in children who do not like fish.
 
A number of studies have shown that blood levels of omega 3 EFAs are lower in children with conditions such as dyslexia, autism, dyspraxia and ADHD. Research into the benefits of omega 3 supplements in the context of the treatment of these disorders is ongoing.

Should I Give My Child a Vitamin and Mineral Supplement?

There is much scientific interest in the effects of micronutrient intake on mood and attention. Deficiencies in a range of nutrients have been shown to have a negative impact on mood and mental health. A suitably varied and balanced diet is without a doubt the best method of meeting vitamin and mineral requirements, but keeping pace with a child's changing tastes and preferences is a challenge for many parents.
 
While no official recommendation regarding supplementation is made for children over the age of five years, the BDA says that a parent can choose to give their child a specially formulated children's multivitamin supplement, if their child is a selective eater. However, as a precaution, it is important that they consult a GP before doing so.

What Is the Influence of Food Intolerances on a Child's Behaviour?

A legitimate intolerance to a particular food or food group has the potential to cause an alteration in the mood or behaviour of a child. If a parent suspects that a certain food is causing their child to behave differently, or become irritable of hyperactive, they should eliminate it from the diet for a given period. This will help to determine whether or not there is a genuine link between the food and a change in behaviour, and to rule out the possibility of a coincidence.
 
During trials that involve the removal of dubious foods, a diary can be useful to record what is eaten and how the child responds to the elimination diet. Ultimately, if a parent suspects that their child has a food-intolerance, they should consult a suitably qualified health professional.

Is It True That Sugar Can Cause Hyperactivity in Children?

Hyperactivity is often defined as a range of behavioural symptoms that include excessive movement, impulsiveness, and inattentiveness. Therefore, it is easy to understand why the behaviour of children in situations, such as birthday parties, where they are likely to consume large amounts of sugar could be perceived as hyperactive. However, the evidence generated in controlled studies shows no relationship between sugar and hyperactivity.
 
Additionally, in a separate study, children were administered a drink, which the parents were told contained sugar. The parents rated the behaviour of their children as more hyperactive, even when the drink was actually sugar-free. This observation suggests that the apparent link between sugar and behaviour is due to the perception of parents, and not a physiological response in children.
 

References:

1. The British Dietetic Association, 2016. “Food Fact Sheet: Diet, behaviour and learning in children”.
2. The Food Standards Agency, 2016. “The Eatwell Guide”.
3. Medline Plus, 2015. “Hyperactivity and sugar”. URL: [Accessed on 24th August 2016].