Diet and your toddler’s behaviour

Does what your child eats affect his behaviour? Dr Rana Conway looks at positive and negative foods

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It’s difficult to ignore the news stories linking certain types of food with your child’s behaviour. So how is your child’s mood, concentration or temper determined by what he eats?

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Scientists agree that certain foods do affect children’s temperaments. Meals containing lots of carbohydrates, such as potatoes or pasta, tend to be more calming than high-protein food, and we all know caffeine acts as a stimulant.

Other types of food might influence behaviour if your child has an allergy or intolerance.

But beyond this, experts begin to disagree, as studies looking at the impact of different foods on hyperactivity and learning difficulties haven’t yet come up with consistent results.

Hyperactivity: are additives to blame?   

The evidence linking additives to hyperactivity is growing.

Three year olds who had a fruit drink with artificial colourings and benzoate preservatives were more hyperactive than those who had a placebo, according to their parents in the widely publicised Isle of Wight Study. However, clinical assessments of the Isle of Wight children didn’t back up the parents’ findings.

The conclusions of a second, similar study by Southampton University suggest that hyperactive behaviour is linked to certain food additives. This study was one of the factors supporting the Food Standards Agency’s decision in 2008 to recommend to Ministers the phasing out of six colours in food and drink in the EU.

These colours are:

  • Sunset yellow (E110)
  • Quinoline yellow (E104)
  • Carmoisine (E122)
  • Allura red (E129)
  • Tartrazine (E102)
  • Ponceau 4R (E124)

The preservative sodium benzoate (E211) was also investigated in the studies, but it’s said that more research is needed to shed light on the effects it may have on behaviour.

Are sweets and fizzy drinks the problem?

These additives are the food colourings and a preservative that are often found in sweets and fizzy drinks. All these additives are identified on labels.

You may want to avoid the food and drink that contain them. However, there’s no need to feel you have to ban all sweets or fizzy drinks.

Does sugar cause a high?

The link between sugar and hyperactivity has yet to be proven scientifically. In one study, parents who were told their children had been given sugar reported that they were more hyperactive. In fact, they’d been given a placebo, showing how preconceptions can influence us.

“I don’t actually think my kids’ behaviour is affected by what they eat,” says Lisa Woolf, 39, from London, and mum to Owen, 6, and Jenny, 4. “They’re excited at parties, but that’s more to do with the buzz of having lots of people around and the entertainment.”

But mum Kathy Drake, 29, from Plymouth, disagrees. “I used to give my 3 year old, Lucy, sweets while I did the supermarket shop,” she says. “She’d get manic and have a meltdown when we reached the checkout. When I gave her sandwiches instead, she was different. The sweets must have given her an energy burst.”

Omega 3s: are they really brain boosters?

Media reports concerning fish oils boosting children’s brainpower by three years in just three months might have you dashing out to buy expensive supplements. But the trial that generated these stories isn’t 100% reliable. No placebo group was included, so there’s no way of knowing if the children flourished because of the supplements or the extra attention they received during the trial.

Other trials have similar drawbacks. Of the many fish-oil studies, only five have made it into scientific journals. They all involved children with learning difficulties such as ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and DCD (developmental co-ordination disorder). Some found improvements in academic performance and behaviour. But not all reached the same conclusion.

It’s possible that omega-3 supplements may benefit all children, but there’s no scientific proof that they do.

A review of all the available evidence by Professor Jim Stevenson at the University of Southampton concluded that a convincing case could only be made for children with specific learning difficulties. It may be that they have a problem metabolising fatty acids and so need more of them than other children.

“Last year my son was chosen to take part in a trial investigating how the omega-3 and omega-6 supplement, IQ, could help children with ADHD,” says mum Angela Froud, 40, from Durham, and mum to Dylan, now 5. “After some weeks he was able to focus on reading and even watch long films. It’s made a huge difference to our family.”

Should you feed your child ‘superfoods’?

Superfoods are all the rage at the moment. You may have heard that blueberries, broccoli and turkey are the key to academic success, good sleep and behavioural improvements.

Turkey, for example, is thought to help with sleep because it’s high in L-tryptophan, which the body converts to serotonin (which calms us down, making us sleepy). But to have this effect, L-tryptophan needs to be consumed without other amino acids, and turkey contains lots of these.

Although stories of miracle ‘superfoods’ foods are appealing, they’re best treated with a degree of scepticism. 

Mums’ stories:

“My children go crazy when they drink fizzy drinks”

“My children become hyper if they have brightly coloured drinks. In some play areas, where you can’t buy healthy drinks, they used to get really wound-up, so I decided to say no to the drinks. Now they’re still excited, but not crazy! I was able to make the connection because they only had these drinks occasionally. Parents who give them to their kids regularly probably don’t realise the effects.”

Amanda, 33, mum to Jude, 5, Darragh, 4, and Erin, 11 months

“My children get irritable when they are hungry”

“Food only affects my children’s behaviour when they’re hungry! When they need food, they get really irritable, but being so young they don’t know what’s wrong – it’s a good job that mums can read minds!”

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Verity, 35, mum to Oran, 5, John-Joe, 4, and Grace, 21 months

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