How much does food affect young children’s behaviour? Mary Whiting reveals some research-based facts and offers some tips

It may sound amazing, but studies of children (and of teenagers and prisoners) have repeatedly shown that disruptive and even violent behaviour can be dramatically altered simply by changes to diet.

One notable study in the 1990s was the South Cumbria Alternative Sentencing Option, which achieved spectacular results by changing the diets of troublesome young people. Its scientific advisor, chemistry professor Derek Bryce-Smith, was emphatic that defective diets actually altered the chemistry of the brain and could cause loss of control. ‘Contrary to what is taught in medical school,’ he said, ‘severe dietary deficiencies exist widely among the general population, and these factors particularly influence brain function.’(1)

It is not difficult to see how such deficiencies have occurred. After 50 years of intensive farming, in which traditional farming methods have been largely replaced by monoculture and reliance on chemicals, there has been a steady decline in the nutrient content of soil and the food grown in it. (2)

One of the major losses is zinc, which is crucial for good brain function. Professor Bryce-Smith says the widespread use of phosphate fertilisers hinders uptake of zinc from the soil. Zinc deficiency, now common in Western diets, produces behavioural problems such as moodiness, tantrums, and learning difficulties. It also reduces our ability to metabolise sugar properly and can impair taste, making sugary, salty flavours preferable to healthy food.

Magnesium, ‘nature’s own tranquilliser’, is another mineral which affects behaviour and now poorly supplied. Small amounts exist in many foods, notably wheatgerm, wheat bran, fish and pulses, but the only good supply is cooked green leafy vegetables grown without chemicals.

Refining wheat to make white flour causes the loss of the bran layer (the fibre) and the highly nutritious germ. Notably, 60-90% of each of the B vitamins gets destroyed; by law, just two are (partly) replaced. Similarly, refining (‘polishing’) brown rice to make it white causes huge B vitamin losses. Such losses are disastrous for behaviour because B vitamins are needed to feed the brain and nervous system. (Antibiotics also destroy B vitamins; some countries prescribe B vitamin supplements to children on antibiotics.)

Chromium is almost entirely destroyed in making white flour. Chromium works with insulin to keep blood sugar levels stable, which, without enough chromium, can be erratic and cause mood swings.

The loss of bran can also affect mood. Refined carbohydrates (white flour products and white rice) become compacted as they pass through the gut, fostering constipation. This affects many children today, and, as well as causing a range of diseases, produces mental and physical sluggishness and low mood.

Overall, diets high in refined carbohydrates tend to be low in essential nutrients, leading to irritability and low IQ, which often leads later to antisocial behaviour.

Sugars, additives and saturated fats

Sugars, additives and saturated fats, now consumed in huge quantities, also interfere with brain function. Children are especially vulnerable because their brains are still developing.

The sugar fix

We must all have observed the ‘high’ that sugary food and drinks can give children, and how, soon afterwards, blood-sugar levels plummet as the pancreas makes emergency quantities of insulin to deal with the sugar rush. Tiredness, irritability and aggression can follow-plus a craving for sweet-tasting food. If the response is to have something else sugary, a pattern of high and low moods sets in (see below).

  • The effect of sugar on behaviour
    I remember teaching one badly behaved little boy who was perpetually ‘on the go’. He’d flick crayons at other children and push their books onto the floor; he’d fall off his chair and pretend he couldn’t get up; he’d giggle helplessly at nothing … and so on, all day. At my wits’ end, I talked to his mother. She told me he loved sugary food: she’d even had to hide the sugar bowl. I persuaded her to allow him no sugar at all. The result? After three days he was a completely different child! But after a few weeks he began to slip back, so I spoke to his mother again. ‘Oh, I forgot!’ she exclaimed, ‘He’s been having sugar again!’ She stopped it a second time, and again, after three days he was behaving completely normally.
    From Dump the Junk, Mary Whiting (pub. Moonscape)


I wrote about the deleterious effects of additives in EYU issue 21. But it’s worth recalling Sally Bunday’s five- year-old son, who constantly cried, screamed, head-banged and had generally unbearable behaviour plus what seemed like perpetual severe catarrh. A psychiatrist and a mental hospital had prescribed various drugs, which hadn’t worked.

Then a friend told her about Dr Ben Feingold, an American child health specialist who believed that certain foods could cause bad behaviour. (Other researchers had made similar findings.) Desperate, Sally threw out every processed food and provided only whole, fresh, home-cooked food. In four days her son was better.

Her story is by no means unique. Dr Feingold found that foods containing salicylates and, among additives, coal-tar (azo) dyes, chemical flavours and two preservatives, the anti-oxidants BHA (E320) and BHT (E321) and flavour-enhancers such as MSG, could cause mental disturbance, resulting in insomnia, aggression, violence, and the inability to stay still, concentrate or learn. He concluded that this ‘hyperactivity’ was a clinical, not a mental, disorder. Various other researchers have also found that on a sound, additive-free diet, aggressive children can become normal and likeable again.

Appalled by her son’s experience, in 1977, Sally founded the Hyperactive Children’s Support Group (HACSG) to help other parents. Sally says it can ‘cure’ eight of every 10 children referred to it just by removing certain items from the child’s diet.3 Incredibly, medicines, too, often contain undesirable additives. Some children’s behaviour can also be affected by ordinary foods, notably wheat, milk, chocolate and citrus fruits.

Of course, additives have been ‘tested’, but they were tested singly and not in the way they get eaten, ie in unpredictable combinations: ‘the cocktail effect’. It’s also worth noting that most additives were tested only by the companies who were going to use them, and that many tests seem to have been neither peer-reviewed nor published.

Recent government research clearly showed the effects of additives on children. Researchers looked at four colours (E102, E110, E122, E124) and a preservative (E211, sodium benzoate), and concluded that ‘significant changes in children’s hyperactive behaviour could be produced by the removal of colourings and additives.’4 Unfortunately, government has so far ignored the research. We know about it only because the Food Commission discovered it and published a summary in their Food Magazine.5

Good fats and bad fats

The omega-3 oils (the ‘good’ fats) found in oily fish are vital for proper brain function; deficiencies have been linked to poor memory, dyslexia, moodiness, hyperactivity, depression and mental illness. Supplements are reputed to have improved some children’s attention, behaviour and school performance.

But children are increasingly eating other kinds of fats: unhealthy, saturated fats. These can include man-made trans fatty acids which are created when vegetable oils are solidified by passing hydrogen through them. These hydrogenated oils occur in most margarines, and are used by manufacturers to give products such as crisps, biscuits and other bakery goods longer shelf-life. Sometimes called ‘dysfunctional fats’, they are absorbed into the brain’s structure, displacing healthy fats and reducing the brain’s ability to transmit messages between cells. Put simply, trans fats clog up the machinery. They may cause dyslexia, dyspraxia, learning difficulties and autism.

So what to give them?

For advice on what to give and not give to children see below. Tip: when making changes to your menus, do it gradually, without fuss, one small change at a time.

What to give them

  • A good breakfast! Oats, wholegrain toast; plenty of protein (milk, egg, cheese, plain yoghurt, sugar-reduced baked beans) for sustained energy and good mood into mid-afternoon. Children’s breakfast cereals are usually highly sugared; choose low-sugar ones like Ready Brek, Weetabix, plain Shredded Wheat, Puffed Wheat, Grapenuts and Kashi. (Cornflakes are too salty for children.) All-milk porridge makes an ideal winter breakfast, sweetened with banana and/or sultanas. For a creamier taste, add evaporated milk too. Vary your menu each day. A glass of milk, sugar-free oatcakes and a banana make an easy ‘instant’ breakfast – or snack.
  • Oily fish, at least twice a week: sardines, herrings, pilchards, mackerel, trout, salmon and tuna for omega-3 oils. (Tinned tuna has very little beneficial oil, but is better than nothing.)
  • Liquids: plain tap (not bottled) water, ultra-weak tea (no sugar), milk. Even mild dehydration reduces brain function and liveliness. Provide easy access to tap water.
  • Wholegrain bread and pasta for B vitamins and fibre, and three to four times the mineral content of refined kinds . Try a ‘porridge’ of wheatgerm and hot milk. Oats and wholegrains release energy slowly, helping keep blood sugar levels even. Use 81% extraction (‘brown’) flour for general cooking.
  • Lean red meat, liver or kidney once a week for iron. Children are getting less iron nowadays. Deficiency causes anaemia, tiredness and poor concentration. Mix finely chopped chicken livers into Bolognese sauce; serve liver pâté and steak and kidney pie.
  • Cooked green leafy vegetables, organic if possible, for B vitamins, iron and (especially) magnesium; at least three times a week.
  • A wide variety of colourful fruit and vegetables (eg oranges, bananas, summer berries, broccoli, carrots, red peppers, tomatoes, peas) for fibre, juiciness, and a raft of nutrients; the vitamin C aids iron absorption and helps counter toxic substances.
  • A good night’s sleep, every night, at a fixed time. Surprisingly perhaps, as well as seeming tired or dull, sleep-deprived children can appear hyperactive. Supper should be a light meal, without sugar or additives, and not too near bedtime. A milky nightcap and a piece of banana can promote sleep.
  • Snacks and treats:
  • For snacks/tea-time: offer a range of fresh fruit, raw vegetable and salad pieces, varying it with the seasons; a variety of quality breads; wholemeal toast soldiers, pitta strips; Ryvita, sugar-free oat biscuits, rice cakes; a (varying) range of cheeses; hummus; hard-boiled eggs, sometimes chopped into a little mayonnaise; tinned fish pieces; sardines mashed into curd cheese; home-made liver pâté; home-made, unsweetened popcorn; dried fruit; cold chicken; milk; fruit-&-milk smoothies; water (always). Let children choose from a tea-time ‘buffet’.
  • For treats: ditch sugary and salty stuff! Decide on ‘fresh fruit only’. Offer colourful fruit pieces; freeze bananas and orange segments as ‘lollipops’; make ice-cream with puréed fruit, orange juice and a little cream; dip banana and strawberry tips in melted dark chocolate and let harden.

What not to give them

Added sugars: found in most drinks, breakfast cereals, milk chocolate, ‘fruit’ yoghurt, cereal bars, concentrated fruit juices and spreads; avoid anything ending in ‘-ose’ such as glucose. Go easy on molasses and honey.
Chemical additives, especially colourings, sodium benzoate and MSG. The HACSG has a list of additives most likely to cause hyperactivity and tantrums (see EYU issue 21).
Refined carbohydrates: white bread, pasta and other white-flour goods; most cereals; white rice; instant mashed potato.
Hydrogenated fat: most margarines; commercially prepared bakery goods; fast food; fried food; crisps and other bag-snacks. Also avoid fatty meat.
Stimulants: the caffeine in cola, chocolate, tea and coffee destroys B vitamins and is mood-altering; cola drinks hinder the uptake of zinc.


1. Bryce-Smith, D: Int J of Biosoc Res Vol 8 (2)
2. The Food Magazine, issue 50, from the Food Commission, tel: 020 7837 2250;
3. The Hyperactive Children’s Support Group (HACSG). Please send a stamped addressed envelope to 71, Whyke Lane, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 7PD; tel: 01243 539 966. Web: The HACSG runs courses in London for professionals dealing with children suffering from hyperactivity or ADHD; tel: 020 8946 4444

4. Do Additives Cause Hyperactive Behaviour Problems in a Geographically Defined Population of 3 Year Olds? (Project T07004) from the Food Standards Agency Library; tel: 020 7276 8060.

5. The Food Magazine, issue 59; the Food Commission.

Further information

The Nursery Food Book, by Whiting and Lobstein; comprehensive coverage of nursery food; 45 pages of recipes; ideas for sandwiches and snacks. Available in libraries.
Managing Nursery Food, by Mary Whiting; sample menus; ideas for meals and snacks in nurseries