How Diet Impacts Behavior in Children: hyperactivity, ADHD, Autism and more

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Are you having issues with your child’s behavior? Maybe it’s generalized behavior problems, ADHD, hyperactivity or Autism… any of which can make life more challenging. I feel you and empathize with you.

There has been a ton of research done on how a child’s diet, and adults, can impact their behavior and health. I have done years of research on this topic and broke down studies, facts and correlations here in this article. I highly recommend getting a journal and documenting everything your child eats in a day as well as their behavior. After a while you might start to see trends and find areas you can work on.


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Dairy can be delicious, I mean who doesn’t like a big bowl of creamy mac n’ cheese?! Unfortunately, researchers have found a lot of negative impacts dairy can have on children.

Dairy has been proven to be the most common food allergy within children in the United States. Casein is the protein found in milk and other dairy products and is what causes most people’s intolerance to it.

“Lactose intolerance is common, affecting about 95 percent of Asian Americans, 74 percent of Native Americans, 70 percent of African Americans, 53 percent of Mexican Americans, and 15 percent of Caucasians”.

-Physicians committee

Children (and adults) who consume dairy can have physical symptoms like:

  • Congestion,
  • Bloating
  • Fatigue
  • More colds and ear infections

It can also have psychological impacts such as:

  • Irritability
  • Depression
  •  Anxiety
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Studies have also shown that kids are more likely to act out

Alternatives to Dairy

Dairy can seem like a miserable thing to cut out since it is such a huge part of the American diet. I would recommend slowly cutting it out so that it gradually becomes normal in your life. Luckily there are a lot of dairy free options out there now.

Some of my favorite alternatives are Almond or Coconut milk. I made the switch about four years ago and now I have a hard time-consuming cow milk. Dairy free milk helps me feel so much better. You can get almond milk at relatively any grocery store. Or click here to order it on Amazon.

I have also found a delicious vegan cheese (I know, it sounds impossible). It’s called Miyoko’s and you can find it at natural food stores… and regular stores if you’re lucky. Throw the cheese in a pot with some plain and unsweetened almond milk to make a creamy cheese sauce to pour over some noodles! I also like to add some broccoli and chicken to mine for added nutrition. Your kids will love it.



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I’m sure you saw this one coming. Research has shown that sugar can have a negative impact on a child’s behavior. I’m not talking about all sugars; I’m talking out the refined and processed sugars that the food industry likes to throw into everything. Natural sugars that come from fruits and other whole foods are essential for our body, the processed ones have virtually no benefit to our health. In fact, it has been shown to have long-term health consequence if too much is consumed.

When we consume sugar, it triggers our body to release adrenaline. According to the Journal of Pediatrics, the adrenaline release starts somewhere around 4 hours after a child consumes it. When this happens it causes symptoms, such as:

  • Shakiness
  • Sweating
  • Altered thinking
  • And changes in behavior

Pediatricians recommend feeding your child a low-sugar and high-carb breakfast. Studies have shown that when children eat a breakfast like that, that they have better memory retention and an improved attention span at school. When kids consume less sugar, it helps keep their adrenaline more level throughout the day, which can drastically improve their behavior if you stay consistent for it (although a treat every now and then should be okay).

Breakfast examples include:

  • Oatmeal
  • Shredded wheat
  • Berries
  • Bananas
  • Whole grains

This should be incorporated for their packed lunch as well if you want to have a peaceful evening at home.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have sugar at all, it just means you need to cut out the processed ones. Here is a list of non-refined sugars you can order from amazon (again I would never recommend anything I wouldn’t use or don’t already use):

Artificial Coloring

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Did you know that artificial coloring are made out of chemicals that derive from petroleum? They also use this chemical to make gasoline, diesel fuel, asphalt and tar. I get sick to my stomach thinking about all of the food coloring I’ve consumed over the years after learning about how toxic it is for out bodies.

Food dye is used to improve the aesthetics of what we consume and the United States doesn’t have a lot of regulation on it. In the United Kingdom, food companies are required to put a warning label on foods with artificial coloring, which states:

“May have adverse effect on activity and attention in children”.

Food coloring and how it impacts human behavior has been studied for over thirty years. The United Kingdom conducted a study with 300 children to see if there was an adverse effect from consuming coloring. Some of the children consumed one of two different color dyes in a drink and others got a placebo. The results concluded that hyperactivity increased significantly with the two groups of children who consumed the food coloring, when there was little change in kids who consumed the placebo drink (no coloring in it).

Consuming artificial coloring can:

  • Have a negative impact on a kids ability to learn
  • Increase hyperactivity
  • Increased ADHD symptoms
  • Contribute to the obesity epidemic

Preservatives and Additives

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More than 10,000 additives in the United States are approved to put into our food system. TEN THOUSAND. I didn’t even know that many existed. The additives can be used to modify the taste, smell, appearance texture and nutrients.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have a rising amount of studies that additives and preservatives can:

  • Interfere with hormone growth
  • Cause increased hyperactivity
  • Have a negative impact on child development
  • Increase risk of obesity
  • Hinder our bloods ability to bring oxygen to our bodies
  • Interfere with early life brain development
  • Linked to worsened symptoms in children with ADHD and Autism

Children are known to be more susceptible to additives because they are exposed o them more often than adults and because of their smaller body size. Two of the most common additives are:

  • Perchlorate, which controls the static electricity in dry food packaging. It has been linked to interference with the thyroid hormone, and to impact brain development in infancy and early childhood
  • Nitrates, which is a preservative and color enhancer. They have been found to cause Methemoglobinemia in infants and toddles (a blood disorder in which too little oxygen is delivered to your cells).

How to avoid dangerous preservatives and additives:

  • Buy fresh or frozen
  • Reduce processed meats
  • Wash all of your plastic by hand if it isn’t BPA free
  • Try to use only glass and stainless steal
  • Wash your hands after touching plastics when you’re cooking

Where to Start?

It’s not going to be easy if you start cutting out some of your kids’ favorite foods, but stick to it and it’ll be worth it. Here are some of my tips to have success:

  • Start a food and behavior journal. Track when your child is eating and their behavior for the ENTIRE day. Continue doing this until you start noticing some trends.
  • Do the elimination diet. Start by cutting out one part of their diet at a time and see if it changes their behavior. After a month or so start cutting out another one.
  • Be patient. Change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes out bodies and brains time to adjust to change. If you don’t see their behavior improve right away, stick to it and it’ll pay off.
  • Don’t cave, even if your child is being a monster about it.

Best wishes and good luck!

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Published by Maggie Stephens, MS

Hi, I'm Maggie! I have been working in the child behavior field for over 8 years. I have bachelor degree in Early Childhood Development and Educations as well as a Masters degree in psychology. I am passionate about children and their developing minds and wanting to spread the knowledge in an enjoyable way. Don't hesitate to reach out to me at Follow my personal instagram at @magstephens to get to know me better!

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