Is there a connection between food and behavior problems in kids? You might be surprised to learn that there can be. 

What Every Parent Should Know About Food and Behavior Problems

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Is there a connection between food and behavior problems in kids? What you feed kids makes a night and day difference in child behavior problems when running a home daycare.

Kids being upset and fighting

Sometimes it seems like kids just go nuts for no reason at all. Your calm, well-behaved sweetheart turns into a lunatic for seemingly no reason and spoils a perfectly good day. There are so many things that kids eat that can affect their behavior.

Child behavior problems

Let’s start with food allergies. I have a ton of them and when I get exposed, my blood pressure rises. A lot of fluid builds up in my body, causing it to be harder for me to breathe, walk, think and function. I feel tired, irritable and short of breath or even worse, and it lasts for days.

child with behavior problems

Food dye allergy

When I was a child, food companies used different dyes that are banned now. There was a particularly dangerous red dye in hot dogs, bologna, Kool-aid, and other red treats. (I know, can you even believe hot dogs and bologna aren’t pink naturally? WHAT?) At home, we didn’t have sodas or Kool-aid, but every time I would go somewhere like vacation Bible school or some other place where there were treats, it would happen.

As a child, I didn’t realize food could make me sick. I didn’t connect the dots for years. They would pour those little fun cups of hi-cee drinks, and I would get as sick as a dog. I would vomit until there was nothing left to vomit and then I would dry heave until it felt like my guts were coming loose. I always had to get medical treatment to stop it.

What foods can cause behavior problems?

When I would eat a hot dog or bologna (which contains less of the dye) I would throw up violently until it was all out. All of this to say, food allergies are no joke! Once the red dye was banned, I never had this problem again. I’m sorry again to everyone who had to take care of me during an episode of that!

This is a very severe example of how an allergen can affect the body, but let’s talk about less severe allergies. I have an allergy to sulfites. When I am exposed to them (they are in chicken, almost any bread product and so much more) I get the fluid buildup I mentioned earlier.

If you are a child, and you feel yourself becoming tired, lethargic, dizzy, and short of breath a little, what is your reaction? I know when I feel out of control like that, I get cranky. It’s the same for children. Don’t forget there are life-threatening food allergies that people have, so there is a range of reactions kids can have to being exposed to an allergen.

Let’s talk now about artificial coloring. There are so many artificial colors that affect the behavior of children. Check out a study performed on food dyes and children’s behavior and health by the Center for Science and Public Interest. Click to view it.

Here’s a quote about just one artificial color that is common in our food supply. “considerations of organ damage, cancer, birth defects, and allergic reactions, mixtures of dyes (and Yellow 5 tested alone) cause hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in some children.”

I think it would be best for all of us to avoid artificial coloring in our diets. How can we? They are everywhere? I think the best way is to buy pure, whole foods. Do most of your shopping in the produce, meat and dairy sections of the store and leave the processed foods at the store.

It doesn’t take any time at all to wash an apple and hand it to a child instead of giving them chips. Keeping it simple is the best way to have long-term health for everyone in your family.

If you are a daycare provider, you DEFINITELY want to avoid triggering behavior problems for kids with food. There are many of them and only one of you. Save your sanity and feed them well!

What do manufacturers put in food to make it last so long at the store? Preservatives! A Twinkie can sit on the shelf for 20 years because it’s full of chemicals. If you made a piece of cake and filled it, it would mold or dry out and get stale. Food companies need their food to be shelf-stable, so they use stabilizers in the products. What do those preservatives do to children’s behavior? (not to mention our health)

According to Food Matters, “Irritability, temper outbursts, oppositional defiance, restlessness and difficulty falling asleep are the main behavioral effects of additives. But parents rarely realize that food chemicals can be associated with many other effects including arguing with siblings, making silly noises, speech delay, anxiety, depression or difficulty concentrating. Additive-free children are generally calmer, happier and more cooperative.

Rashes, headaches, bed-wetting, stomach aches, sneaky poos, constipation or asthma can also be a problem. Parents of asthmatic children are usually unaware that sulfite preservatives (220-228) in foods such as dried fruits, sausages, cordials, and some fruit drinks can irritate airways.” Click to read the whole article 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know what a sneaky poo is and I don’t want to find out. I also want to do my best to give my kids the best I can and help them by avoiding these preservatives in their diets.

Sugar and child behavior

There has been study after study about the effects of sugar in our diet has on us. Here is a quote from an article on Parenting, “DeeDee Brown of Richmond, Virginia, was looking for anything that might explain her daughter’s meltdowns. “Normally, Chloe’s calm and happy,” says Brown.

“But there were times when she’d fall apart—screaming and yelling and so angry that nothing I said or did could console her.” Just the terrible twos? Overtiredness? Playing with certain friends? Brown ruled out the possibilities one by one until she made the connection.

grouchy child with behavior problems

“Once a week, we’d go to the bank, where Chloe would get a lollipop. An hour later, she’d be a complete emotional mess.” Brown noticed the same pattern after cookie binges and birthday parties. “I should have known,” she says in hindsight. “I get cranky after eating sugar. I just didn’t think about my child having the same issue.”

The article continues to explain where we can find sugar and that everyone reacts differently to sugar and tolerates different amounts. Click to read more. 

I don’t want the food I feed my kids to cause them to misbehave. That’s frustrating for them but even more for me since I’m outnumbered 7 to 1. I want to give them the best chances to do well, excel and learn! So, the food I feed them is of utmost importance to me. I really try hard to feed them well to reduce behavior problems.

There are a few things you can do that aren’t that difficult but can make a big difference in behavior for your child. A big one is to EAT PROTEIN FIRST.

When you have been fasting all night while you sleep, your blood sugar is very low. If you first eat sugar when you wake up, your blood-sugar spikes way up and causes you to lose your ability to have self-control. If you want to eat donuts, okay, you can have one, but eat a protein-filled breakfast before you have it.

Then your body can keep your blood sugar more stabilized and you’ll feel better. If you start your day with sugar, your body is working all day long trying to correct the problem and you’ll feel bad all day. Just start with protein.

Another thing you can do to help keep behavior problems at bay is cut down on processed foods-they contain artificial ingredients and preservatives. Make foods yourself at home. Buy simple foods, like fruits and vegetables and meats and cook simple meals. Read your labels and if you find something you can’t pronounce, skip that product.

For instance, I have seen ice cream labels that say, milk, cream, sugar, vanilla. If you have to get some ice cream, choose that one!

Whole grains, in their natural state, can help regulate blood sugar. They contain fiber which helps slow down the absorption and processing of what you are eating. That helps you keep your blood sugar levels even and helps you assimilate more nutrients from the food you eat. Feeding kids whole grains help keep avoid problems from food and behavior problems.

two big plump loaves of bread fresh from the oven on the stove top

Fruits and vegetables are loaded with nutrients our bodies need to feel good. Feeding kids plenty of nutritious produce will give them the energy they need to make good choices. We all feel better when we are properly nourished. If kids are eating tons of chips and cookies, they aren’t hungry for all of the fruits and veggies they need to grow strong and healthy and to be their best.

Sometimes, eating healthy can be a struggle because of sensory issues. I can relate to this as I have them myself. 

If kids ask for a snack, offer them some high-quality produce or whole grains to stave off hunger. You can avoid a ton of behavior problems in kids by just feeding them well. You might be thinking it’s a lot of trouble, but after 23 years of taking care of kids, I can tell you that not feeding them well is much more trouble because of how they react to the meals they are served.

I’m not going to lie and say we never have behavior problems at Little Sprouts. We are all human. I will tell you since I switched the kid’s diets to healthy, whole foods, my job is 500 times more fun and peaceful than it was when I was serving chicken blobs and frozen fries. It was a lot of work to figure out how to do it, but avoiding the food and behavior problems in kids issue is so worth it.

For more help with getting kids to eat healthy food so they can grow and feel better, check this out.

And if you’re just looking for a quick dinner idea for kids, check this out.

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  1. Hi
    Great article!
    My 12 years old son is huge fan of sugar and bread. I have advised him so many times to reduce the quantity. He doesnt listen. What should I offer him in place of this.

    1. Fruit can be a great start to satisfying the sweet tooth without white sugar. It is tough because sugar is an addiction like anything else and it’s hard to let it go. (Speaking from experience) He’s 12 so a lot of the decision is up to him. I would just offer fruit and have healthier options available at your house for meals and snacks and slowly stop buying the junk. He will still eat it when he’s away from home, but if it’s not available at the house, he’ll eat less of it. And he will make some new habits over time. Be careful about being negative about it. But do educate him on what sugar does to the body and how bread turns straight into sugar in the body. Let him know how much better he would feel without so much of it.

  2. I love this post. Both my husband and I are sensitive to sugar, in different ways. He gets bad headaches and I downward spiral into a weepy mess by the end of the day. So when we had my son we both agreed that we would do our best to only feed him real food and avoid refined sugar like the plague for him. The one struggle I wasn’t expecting with this choice was how weirded out family, friends and strangers would be by this decision. When we politely intercept someone offering a piece of candy or something of the like to our 3 year old, we are met with the most bewildered faces and questions and then looks of pity towards our son. It is the most bizarre phenomenon. Very refreshing to read posts like these! 🙂

    1. People do have a hard time understanding the dangers sometimes, but good for you for thinking of your child’s health!

  3. My son is in kindergarten and has been suspended 4 times in less than 2 months for behavioral issues. I pack him healthy lunches and snacks but he tells the teacher he is hungry all the time. I’m not sure what they give him but he usually has some kind of incident when they give him food. I’m making an appointment with his pediatrician now to get an order for a food allergy test to get to the bottom of this. We tried a psych evaluation but nothing is wrong with my son! I’m so frustrated!

    1. I am so sorry you are going through this. Sounds like a food allergy trigger could definitely be the cause. I’m praying for peace for you and a solution!

  4. My son is 14 now. Sugar still messes him up. He eats it, becomes addicted and just wants more and more, then becomes like a 6 year old in hyper goofiness. After it gets out of his system he becomes like his normal 14 year old self. It’s a crazy difference!!!
    I won’t even go into what we had to deal with when he was little. Ugh. Food matters!

  5. I was just have a conversation with my husband about this very thing. Thanks for the tips and information, and providing links to sources!!

  6. Great points! I agree, the type of food we put in our body affects us in many ways. My son has an allergy to peanuts, he vomits just like you described and gets a fever. It’s awful! We discovered it when he was really little and ever since have tried to change our diet. We try to eat mostly healthy but it’s a challenge, especially when all the processed food is marketed to look fun to kids.

    1. It sure is. Marketing is misleading. 🙁 Boo! Thank you for reading and good luck finding great alternatives for healthy food for your son! (and you)

  7. Root cause investigation is so important. A feeding professional can help so much with anxiety towards diet changes too. Visiting from the kid food collective.