Behaviour in children: how diet can help
Want to stabilise your child's mood swings and improve concentration? Find out how simple changes to diet, such as including wholegrains and omega-3s, might help.
Studies into the effect food has in altering mood and behaviour in children have had mixed results. However, the possibility that a healthy, balanced diet could make a noticeable difference for even some children with behavioural problems makes it worth a try. The first area to focus on is the overall nutritional content based on the principles of a balanced diet: ensuring small frequent healthy meals, lots of water, fresh fruits and vegetables and a high intake of essential fatty acids. It is also a good idea to strip out the baddies: too many high sugar, refined, processed foods and additives.
The classic symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) include insomnia, lack of concentration, mood swings and frequent destructive outbursts. If these symptoms sound familiar, the first step is to talk to your GP who can refer your child to a paediatric team for expert assessment and advice. Although you may recognise some of these traits, try not to self diagnose without having your child assessed by a specialist. Whether your child has a diagnosed behavioural disorder or is simply going through a difficult stage, tweaking the diet can be an extremely effective starting point in moderating behaviour.
Always encourage your kids to eat breakfast. Any breakfast is better than nothing; however, emerging evidence shows that lower-GI foods may be a better choice. Great options include:
- A boiled egg with wholegrain toast
- Baked beans served on a grainy English muffin
- Porridge cooked with apple and served with a dollop of yogurt
- 2 Weetabix with milk and sliced banana
Eat-low GI wholegrains
Eating foods that have a low score on the glycaemic index can keep blood sugar levels steady and can even help your body metabolise fat more efficiently. The GI ranks carbohydrate foods based on the rate at which they are broken down into glucose. Too much glucose in the bloodstream triggers the pancreas to release a hormone called insulin to bring blood sugar levels back into the normal range. Consuming foods with a high-GI leads to high levels of circulating insulin levels.
Despite the fact that many parents are in consensus that sugary foods turn their kids wild, there is little scientific evidence to prove that sugar (specifically) has a negative impact on behaviour. However, foods that are highly processed, overly sweet or have a high-GI value have little to offer nutritionally. Instead, replace high-GI carbohydrates with complex wholegrains with a low-GI value. This may help to reduce some of the symptoms and will benefit overall health and protect teeth. Use wholegrain flours or oats and cut back on the quantity of sugar you use when baking, replacing it with fruit as a base in puddings and cakes. It's also worth looking at the starchy foods – white rice and white bread/bread products – to see if changing to the ‘brown’ versions bring about any benefits. Find more information and expert advice on following a low-GI diet.
Additives: what to watch
Food additives are used either to prevent foods spoiling or to enhance flavour. They include substances such as preservatives, artificial colours, artificial flavourings and acidifiers. E-numbers are given to additives that have passed safety tests and are approved for use in the EU. There are some E-numbers that have been linked to hyperactivity in children, so avoiding them might help. They include:
More like this
- tartrazine (E102)
- quinoline yellow (E104)
- sunset yellow (E110)
- carmosine (E122)
- ponceau 4R (E124)
- allura red (E129)
- sodium benzoate (E211)
Studies show that kids who eat a diet free of these additives can be much healthier, more evenly behaved and have better concentration.
However, other additives are perfectly safe and are used to increase shelf life or improve colour and texture. Don't make drastic changes to the diet of your child without getting medical advice first.
ADHD and elimination diets
On rare occasions, children with ADHD have reacted to a group of naturally occurring chemicals known as salicylates. If you suspect this is the case, see your GP for referral to a paediatric dietitian who can advise and support you with an elimination diet. Elimination diets can be effective for some children, but this does require careful monitoring and support with tailored lifestyle management.
The importance of omega-3 fats
One of the most important areas of research into the relationship between foods and behaviour focuses on getting children to eat more of the oily fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Oily fish contain beneficial fatty acids which 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 in studies to have the power to stabilise mood swings and generally improve concentration, behaviour and learning abilities of children with ADHD. If your child does not like oily fish, maybe consider discussing a supplement with your doctor.
Best sources of omega-3:
- Oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and small boned fish, followed by white fish and other seafood
- Omega-3-enriched eggs
- Walnuts, linseeds and flaxseeds
Discover some recipe inspiration:
- Salmon & broccoli cakes with watercress & avocado
- Fish & finger pie
- Smoked salmon & pea frittata
- Salmon & rocket pasta
Iron and zinc deficiencies
Iron and zinc deficiencies have both been implicated in children’s behavioural issues. Under two years of age, a period of rapid brain development, iron deficiency appears the most serious and can result in long term problems with attention and mood. Emerging research also shows that many children with ADHD have lower levels of zinc in their blood, compared to the average. Improving zinc levels in children with ADHD has been shown to reduce symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity and impaired socialisation. This is an area for further research.
Sources of iron and zinc include:
- Iron-fortified rice cereal with puréed fruit (from six months of age onwards)
- Iron-fortified breakfast cereal
- Spaghetti bolognese
- Baked beans on soy & linseed bread
- Green vegetables – seaweed (try baby sushi), peas or spinach
- Dairy foods – cheese, yogurt (source of zinc only, not iron)
- Green garden veg pie
- Boiled eggs with spinach & tomato
- Baked sweet potatoes & beans
- Spaghetti bolognese
- Fruit & nut yogurt
- Cheese & fruit sticks
This article was last reviewed on 14th October 2019 by Jo Lewin.
Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.
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