Does food impact my child’s behaviour?

Dealing with terrible twos? Is the threenager attitude getting a bit too hot to handle? Or maybe the small human in your life is a bit older but still pressing just as many buttons? The good news is that a few changes to their diet might make a world of difference.

How does food change behaviour?

When we’re looking at the impact food has on behaviour, what we’re really looking at how food impacts our moods, ability to reason, be rational and process information. Little humans have a lot of big feelings, so they need all the help they can get! 

Our body has to do something with everything we put in (or on) it. For most foods, that involves breaking down the macro- and micro-nutrients and sending them where they need to go. Carbohydrates get turned into energy, protein gets converted into amino acids and so on. Particular nutrients are needed to make brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that allow our brain to work properly, and other nutrients are required for energy, concentration and feeling calm. 

When our foods contain colourings, preservatives, and flavourings, the body also has to do something with these too. The body makes it a priority to get rid of them as they can’t be used in our bodily systems, which can diminish the absorption of other nutrients and increase inflammation in the body. These colourings, preservatives, and flavourings are also known to have intolerances and allergies associated with them, which can have an impact on behaviour. The gut microbiome can also impact behaviour as some bacteria in the gut can prevent the gut and brain from talking effectively to each other, reduce nutrient absorption, and inhibit concentration. Nourishing the gut microbiome and keeping the “bad” bacteria at low numbers can significantly impact concentration, ability to reason and hyperactivity.

A clinical nutritionist’s recommendations when eating for better behaviour:

Avoid foods a long lists of ingredients

This is the easiest way to reduce the colours, preservatives and flavourings in your child’s diet, and it will likely have the biggest result too. Be aware, these are added to foods to make them more exciting so it might make their behaviour worse for a little bit as they wean off them but trust me, it’s worth it! 

Make sure your child is meeting their fruit and vegetable intake every day

How many servings of fruits and vegetables is your little one getting daily? Only 8.5% of children in Australia in 2021 met their recommended daily intake of both fruits and vegetables! Children should aim for 1-1.5 servings of fruit and 2.5-4.5 servings of vegetables per day. What is a serve? Check out this article for more information.

Get some time outside

Although this doesn’t seem nutrition related, getting enough vitamin D is important for mood regulation. So go for a walk, take your little humans to the park or go swimming at an outdoor pool if it’s warm near you. This has the added benefit of time in nature and a bit of exercise, which will also get the endorphins moving going.

Make sure your child gets enough iron

Iron impacts concentration, tiredness and moods, so ensuring your child has enough iron is important to regulate their behaviour. Requirements for iron change as they grow up, and it’s different for boys and girls, so it’s worth checking to make sure your child is getting enough. Red meat, spinach and legumes are all good sources of iron.

Encourage your child to eat a wide range of fruits, vegetables and herbs

Different fruits and vegetables have different nutrients, so getting a wide range is important! This also supports the little gut bugs too. Aim for 30 different fruits, vegetables and herbs every week.

Incorporate pre and probiotics in your child’s diet

Speaking of gut bugs, probiotics are the good bugs we want in our digestive system, and prebiotics are the food that keeps them alive. There are many ways to include probiotics in your small humans’ diet – they might enjoy some kombucha, kimchi or sauerkraut; or you can hide some kimchi or sauerkraut juice in a smoothie. Some of the best sources of prebiotics include stewed apples and cooked then cooled potatoes (such as in potato salad).

This article is not intended to be medical advice and is purely for educational purposes.