Guest post by Reilly Edmonds, Osteopathic Medical Student
Reviewed by Ashley Maltz, MD
Behavior can be significantly influenced by the types of food consumed by a child. As we know, a piece of cake may cause a child to become hyperactive or irritable. Sweets are well-known for causing these behavioral changes. However, other foods and additives may also be influencing your child’s behavior. We aim to emphasize the importance of a sustainable diet for your child in order to help alleviate hyperactivity, irritability, and other behavioral issues that can result from certain dietary choices.
The following list includes foods and additives that may serve as triggers for attention deficit, hyperactivity, irritability, and other related disorders.
A common food allergy among children is cow’s milk protein allergy.
One study noted a significant improvement in attention deficit, hyperactivity, and sleeping disorders in children who adopted a strict dairy elimination diet.1 A higher rate of psychiatric disorders, namely attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder, and attachment disorder, was found in preschool-aged children with a cow’s milk protein allergy.2
While eliminating dairy entirely can be challenging, if you suspect that your child is exhibiting these behaviors after consuming dairy products, it may be worth trying.
Artificial Dyes & Preservatives
Artificial dyes are often hidden in the ingredient lists of common snacks consumed by children. It is important to be vigilant about these dyes, such as Yellow No. 5, Red No. 40, and Blue No. 1, in the foods you are purchasing, as they have been shown to have a connection with adverse behavioral outcomes in children.
One study conducted a review of 27 clinical studies that examined children exposed to synthetic food dyes and their neurobehavioral outcomes. Slightly over half (52%) of the studies found a statistically significant relationship.3 Therefore, these dyes, which are often found in sweets and other sugary foods, may contribute to changes in your child’s behavior.
Challenge studies have also been conducted, where children were placed on a dye-free diet for several weeks and their behavior was measured. The children were then given food and drinks with added dyes, and their behavior was recorded again. These studies demonstrated that some children are more adversely affected by synthetic food dyes than others.4
Another study examined the common preservative, sodium benzoate, in addition to artificial food colors and additives (ACFA), and their impact on hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children. These additives resulted in increased hyperactivity in both populations of children.5
Foods with High Glycemic Index
The glycemic index indicates the amount of sugar or carbohydrates in a food. The higher the sugar content in a particular food, the greater the spike in a child’s blood sugar after consuming it. Large spikes in blood sugar lead to rapid bursts of energy, followed by a “sugar crash.” When a child experiences a significant drop in blood sugar, they may become irritable and hungry. Consuming foods, especially for breakfast, with a low glycemic index can help improve attention, memory, impulse control, and overall cognitive function in children throughout the day.6
Food Allergens or Sensitivities
Common food allergens, such as dairy, nuts, eggs, soy, and corn, can also contribute to health and behavior issues. It can be challenging to pinpoint which allergen is affecting your child’s behavior, but diets that eliminate specific foods and gradually reintroduce them could be an option. Food intolerances are often missed, and children are sometimes misdiagnosed with ADHD.
While avoiding certain foods or additives, it can also be beneficial to incorporate healthy foods or supplements into your child’s diet.
Including more omega-3 fatty acids could be advantageous if your child exhibits ADHD-like behaviors.
Studies have shown that eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), one of the two main types of fish oil, can help stabilize mood swings and improve concentration, behavior, and learning abilities in children with ADHD.7
There may be an improvement in children with ADHD who supplement with zinc sulfate.
One study suggested that it may be beneficial as an adjunct to methylphenidate in children with ADHD, but further studies are needed to confirm dosing amounts.8
- Lendvai-Emmert D, Emmert V, Fusz K, et alP319 The unexpected ‘troublemaker’ – Behavioural changes in children with cow’s milk protein allergyArchives of Disease in Childhood 2019;104:A285.
- Topal E, Catal F, Soylu N, Ozcan OO, Celiksoy MH, Babayiğit A, Erge D, Karakoç HT, Sancak R. Psychiatric disorders and symptoms severity in pre-school children with cow’s milk allergy. Allergol Immunopathol (Madr). 2016 Sep-Oct;44(5):445-9. doi: 10.1016/j.aller.2016.03.001. Epub 2016 May 27. PMID: 27240441.
- Miller, M.D., Steinmaus, C., Golub, M.S. et al. Potential impacts of synthetic food dyes on activity and attention in children: a review of the human and animal evidence. Environ Health 21, 45 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-022-00849-9
- Delson, S. (n.d.). Report Links Synthetic Food Dyes to Hyperactivity and other Neurobehavioral Effects in Children. Oehha.ca.gov. https://oehha.ca.gov/risk-assessment/press-release/report-links-synthetic-food-dyes-hyperactivity-and-other
- McCann D, Barrett A, Cooper A, Crumpler D, Dalen L, Grimshaw K, Kitchin E, Lok K, Porteous L, Prince E, Sonuga-Barke E, Warner JO, Stevenson J. Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet. 2007 Nov 3;370(9598):1560-7. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61306-3. Erratum in: Lancet. 2007 Nov 3;370(9598):1542. PMID: 17825405.
- Cohen, J., Gorski, M., Gruber, S., Kurdziel, L., & Rimm, E. (2016). The effect of healthy dietary consumption on executive cognitive functioning in children and adolescents: A systematic review. British Journal of Nutrition, 116(6), 989-1000. doi:10.1017/S0007114516002877
- Derbyshire E. Do Omega-3/6 Fatty Acids Have a Therapeutic Role in Children and Young People with ADHD? J Lipids. 2017;2017:6285218. doi: 10.1155/2017/6285218. Epub 2017 Aug 30. PMID: 28951787; PMCID: PMC5603098.
- Akhondzadeh, S., Mohammadi, MR. & Khademi, M. Zinc sulfate as an adjunct to methylphenidate for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children: A double blind and randomized trial [ISRCTN64132371]. BMC Psychiatry 4, 9 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-244X-4-9