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How Does Food Impact a Child’s Behaviour?

In recent years, researchers have come to understand the link between child behaviour and food. This has been a particular area of interest in understanding the developmental effects on children with or predisposed to conditions like ADHD or autism.  

If you’re a parent, or caregiver, asking yourself if certain foods can affect children’s behaviour, you need to know that the answer may be yes. Studies come to very similar conclusions – that there are correlations between dietary changes to health & behavioural impact in children. Certain foods can act as triggers that can alter or impact children’s health. 

Artificial Food Dyes 

There has been a significant study done surrounding dyes that are often found in packaged foods marketed specifically for kids. While these colours may add appeal, or entice curiosity, they may also contribute to negative behaviours, such as hyperactivity, according to a 2007 groundbreaking study.

Dyes to avoid include: 

  • Blue 1 
  • Red 40 
  • Yellow 5 
  • Yellow 6 

As overall awareness of the negative, and potentially harmful, effects of such additives increase on children’s health and behaviours some countries have banned them. In places where they aren’t banned, they are often found in products like cereal and juice drinks. 


Many children worldwide are either allergic to cow’s milk or very sensitive to it. Even people without a dairy allergy or intolerance can experience negative effects from consuming too much milk and cheese. This includes, but is not limited to, bloating, upset stomach, and diarrhea — which may contribute to irritability. 


When considering the link between children’s diet and behaviour, it’s also important to look at gluten. In some cases, gluten-free was something that was seen as merely a craze or meaningless trend, now has actually been shown to be harmful to health when consumed in excess. In children who already display hyperactivity or aggression, particularly if they are sensitive to wheat products, gluten can trigger or aggravate these behaviours

Junk Food 

The unhealthy snacks that kids are drawn to are often loaded with sugar, corn syrup, or artificial sweeteners. These inexpensive but nutrition-lacking foods are also commonly full of fat or salt.  

While it’s largely been debunked that sugar can cause hyperactivity, research suggests it may add to behavioural changes. The connection between junk food and children’s health — especially long-term physical health — is well established. 


Coffees and teas aren’t the only drinks with caffeine. Soft drinks also contain caffeine, which can disrupt sleep patterns and cause long-term health problems. The Sleep Foundation states that children with poor sleep often experience difficulty in school. 


According to one influential study, certain preservatives, commonly found in processed foods, may cause problematic behaviour such as hyperactivity in children. Among these are: 

  • Nitrites and nitrates 
  • Sodium benzoate 
  • Monosodium glutamate (also used as a flavour enhancer) 

While preservative-free foods may have a shorter shelf life, for some people, it is generally worth the trade-off to avoid these ingredients. 

What To Feed Kids Instead 

To help your child’s brain function at its very best, choose nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables and lean meats. The Australian Dietary Guidelines also recommend legumes, cereals (whole grain), and fish for their neural development, as well as drinking water as the first alternative to any sugary juice drinks or caffeine-laden soft drinks. 

When buying pre-made foods, check the label to avoid too much fat, sugar, or salt. It’s best to buy whole foods as much as possible. To boost school performance, give your child a healthy breakfast each morning with complex carbohydrates as well as protein.  

Lastly, check with your school or daycare about what types of snacks or lunches your child receives during the day. 

Contact Kids Club To Enrol Your Child Today 

Kids Club Early Childhood Learning Centres focus on healthy foods as a way to nurture the whole child and set children up for success.  

If you’re looking for childcare that values children’s nutrition Australia in addition to quality learning and stimulated play, look no further. With locations in Canberra, New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria, there’s sure to be one near you. 


Bateman B, et al. (2004). The effects of a double blind, placebo controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children. https://adc.bmj.com/content/89/6/506.short 

Del-Ponte B, et al. (2019). Dietary patterns and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): A systematic review and meta-analysis. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165032718329720 

McCann D, et al. (2007). 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. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(07)61306-3/fulltext 

Nigg JT, et al. (2012). Meta-analysis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, restriction diet, and synthetic food color additives. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22176942/ 

Smith LB, et al. (2017). Psychological Manifestations of Celiac Disease Autoimmunity in Young Children. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/139/3/e20162848/53727/Psychological-Manifestations-of-Celiac-Disease 

Stevens LJ, et al. (2013). Mechanisms of behavioral, atopic, and other reactions to artificial food colors in children. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23590704/ 

Suni E. (2021). Improve Your Child’s School Performance With a Good Night’s Sleep. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/children-and-sleep/sleep-and-school-performance 

Miss Shelli

Center Director @ Clarence Street