Updated: Nov 3, 2021
When we talk about diet, and children, the first conversation is, and always should be, are they getting enough nutrition from their food? Is their diet varied enough to help every system in their little body accomplish it's particular role and see their body grow and develop as well as possible?
But sometimes we unfortunately need to look at the foods our children are consuming from a completely different perspective. That is, could some of the foods they are eating actually be causing a negative outcome?
Have you ever witnessed a child's behaviour change rapidly, seemingly like a switch has been turned on? We've all known (or raised!) children who have a tendency to have a tantrum over small things, get angry easily or even throw things and hurt others. But what if this wasn't just "personality" or a lack of discipline,(sigh) as some people would like to put it all down to. What if these poor children had very little control over these spikes of emotions, as they were simply reacting to food compounds their little bodies had low tolerance to? The same can be said for children who have a tendency to behave impulsively. Silly or even hyperactive behaviours can often purely be a reaction to certain foods. This explains how the behaviours can shift or escalate sometimes so quickly, but don't always seem to be consistent. This knowledge changes how we view and also manage these issues.
There are several ways that foods can impact a child's behaviour or emotions. The simplest place to start, and the one that is often over looked, is food's relation to blood sugar regulation. If a child starts the day with just a breakfast cereal, (and lets not pass judgement here, for some reason its harder to get a child to deviate from cereal than it is to get them to do their homework) this may release energy very quickly, causing an initial spike in blood sugar. They then experience a small drop, which is rectified around 9am by fruit break, which although a healthy choice, is more sugar, spiking levels again. They drop again only to often be picked up by a bag of crisps or a rice cake at recess, and a
sandwich at lunch. You can see how this pattern may provide many opportunities for a child to feel low in energy and what we as adults often classify as "hangry". This can cause erratic, irrational behaviours, lack of focus or even emotional meltdowns. The good new is, this one is easy to correct. We merely need to perhaps change foods to slow releasing wholegrains, and add good fats and proteins to each meal and snack, to keep blood sugar levels nice and even all day.
Artificial additives in pre-packaged foods can of course cause behavioural and emotional outbursts in many children, and should be avoided. This means watching for a connection between behaviour and consumption of foods with flavours, colours, preservatives, and/or flavour enhancers. This can be done by monitoring ingredient lists and consulting free apps like "the chemical maze" to check for these. If you do find your child reacting to these chemicals, eating foods free of them or when possible, making it yourself should rectify this issue easily.
Another, more complex way that food can cause issues is through intolerances. Many children have difficulty processing certain compounds within foods.For example, Salicylates and Amines are naturally occurring chemicals contained in many fruits, vegetables and meats, and some children react to either or sometimes both. These reactions can vary from facial rashes or red ears to silly, hyperactive, or overly aggressive behaviour. The problem parents face identifying this, is that although they may have noticed their child develop spots above their mouth and start jumping off the furniture immediately after a handful of strawberries, they may reason that he often eats strawberries with no reaction whatsoever, thus ruling out a connection. This makes perfect sense, however these reactions are generally seen after the child's individual threshold for the compound has been exceeded. That is, they may now be reacting because they consumed some spaghetti bolognaise, some honey AND some strawberries, which tipped them over the edge. Removing these foods temporarily can provide tremendous relief to children and stressed households. The Food Intolerance Network https://www.fedup.com.au/ has a wealth of information about this, however I must caution- removing these foods really needs to be seen as a temporary method of symptomatic relief. Any diet where significant foods groups are excluded serves to be far too restrictive, and may hinder a child's development and general health in the long run. In incidences where pronounced intolerances are identified, working with a professional to restore gut health and nutrient absorption should see your child's intolerances improve, so these foods can be reintroduced and enjoyed happily long term. This is key, as an overly restricted diet can lead to fussiness, malnutrition, and lets not forget overworked, stressed parents.