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.

A unhappy boy at the dinner table

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

Apple & linseed porridge in bowls

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

Burnt aubergine with brown rice

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:

  • 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.

Sesame salmon, purple sprouting broccoli & sweet potato mash

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:

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)

Recipe ideas

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 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.

Have you found that your child's behaviour is affected by food? We'd love to hear your thoughts and opinions.

Comments, questions and tips

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Carlos Alberto
27th Nov, 2016
Hello everyone, I just would like to share my worries about this issue. I work as a PE teacher in a Spanish Secondary School. I'm on duty during the recess so I can sadly witness what the students eat every day during the school break. Quite a few parents either do not bother to prepare a proper sandwich for their children or they are in a hurry in the morning and the thing is that they often give them the money so that they can get something from the school's cafeteria. There are many students who, on a daily basis, get sweets, confectionary or cakes as a snack. From my subject I try to encourage them to get a sandwich or a piece of fruit, that is to say, something healthier. However, it seems to me that I'm swimming against the current! We all have more information about how to eat healthy and mindfuly although, on contrast, far more unhealthy food is available everywhere, which makes it harder to stick to a healthy diet. Regards, Carlos Alb. Carlos
7th Nov, 2016
Reading this article was tough for me. I'm a middle-aged man in my 50s and I've suffered with ADHD my entire life. I wish that the knowledge that we have today were available when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. I always wondered why it was so difficult for me to sit still, why I couldn't concentrate, why I couldn't do math. Why I always felt dumber than the other kids. ADHD has affected every facet of my life and not for the good. But it's good to know the knowledge, wisdom, and experience we've learned throughout the years regarding this disorder will be able to help other children and adults in the here and now and future to come. Nutrition and knowledge are the change agents to bring about new and novel methodologies to mitigate an age old problem. Regards, John Robinson
1st Jun, 2016
I'm actively hunting for info about diet and behaviour in children. Our 8 yr old son has always been a bit moody, but in the last couple of weeks it has reached crisis point. My husband and I were both looking at the possibility of a serious mental health disorder as he went through periods where he went completely wild and nothing seemed to calm him ........until the weekend, when a bowl of porridge with syrup on turned him back into the sweet boy he really is, and I'm talking within two minutes of starting to eat. We are convinced it is all down to fluctuations in his blood sugar levels. We have a gp appt next week and have a LOT of questions to ask. I'm searching for low GI foods he will eat - although when the 'hypo monster' is here he is so irrational it's difficult to get him to eat anything, hence the importance of getting him on a low GI diet.
17th May, 2016
Articles like these are very informative but they aren't going to solve the childhood obesity problem. Only parents can do that. It starts at home. My boyfriend has a 29-year-old daughter who is morbidly obese (300 lb+) and she easily feeds her 9-year-old daughter 80 grams of sugar a day (multiple Sprites and various sugary treats in lieu of dinner when she turns up her nose at anything remotely healthy)...4 times the recommended allowance. Last night she came for dinner at my house because it was my boyfriend's birthday and her mom let her forego fajitas and have not just 1 but 2 pieces of birthday cake instead. I believe she WANTS her daughter to look like her. We've tried talking to her numerous times and have tried encouraging better eating habits but she seems actually proud that her daughter is "off the charts" at the doctor's office. She actually dumps MORE sugar on her already pre-sweetened cereal. It has caused many fights between my boyfriend and I because we feel powerless to help her. Now she is expecting her second baby and she will be harming another human life. Until parents break the cycle of "loving their children to death with sugar," it will continue and eventually our world will look like the very round characters in Wall-E. Making your child obese is child abuse, and I wish more parents would recognize that.
7th Mar, 2016
Managing the food for students is not easy by the parents. They always worried about the nutrition's gets for child. Like the students thinking about preparing their essays. But they have an option for choosing best essay writing services to complete their works. But this is not the case for small kids.
5th Jan, 2016
I have a daughter who is 3years old and in my eyes she is so fussy, these are the foods she will eat potato waffles, sausages, carrots, beans, peas, noodles and yogurts. that's it!. I have tried so many things to try and get good foods down her. she loves fruit and give her plate of peas and she will eat the lot. just main meals are such a chore with her, I cook her exactly what we have but she refuses so that's why I give in and give her what I know she eats. I worry that it isn't enough for her. if anyone has any guidance I will be grateful of the help.
20th Sep, 2014
Why is this applied only to children? Does this not apply to adults and, if not, why not? Thanks.
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