Diet and behaviour

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“We are what we eat”.

That is to say, the food we eat is absorbed by our bodies and therefore becomes part of us. But it is not only our bodies and our physical health that is affected by what we eat, but also our brains and central nervous system. While researching my book Happy Mealtimes For Kids, I learnt a lot. I thought I might share some of this with you.

Fluid: The human body is 63 % water, and the brain 77 %. Drinking regularly, and keeping the body and brain hydrated, is absolutely essential to function effectively. By the time a child is thirsty they are already dehydrated, and even mild dehydration can cause headaches, tiredness, loss of concentration and irritability. Trials have shown that if children take a bottle of water into school, and are encouraged to drink at regular intervals during the day, there isn’t the dip in concentration and learning that is often experienced in late morning and afternoon.

Hidden caffeine: Although we are unlikely to give a child a cup of strong black coffee, the equivalent amount of caffeine can be found in a can of many fizzy drinks. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant and acts immediately on the central nervous system, giving a powerful but short-lived high. Studies have shown that even children who are not prone to ADHD can become hyperactive, lose concentration, suffer from insomnia and have challenging behaviour when caffeine-laden fizzy drinks are added to their diets.

Sugar: Sugar can affect a child’s mood and behaviour. Most parents and carers have observed the ‘high’ that too many sweet foods or sugary drinks can have on a child – even the average child without a hyperactivity disorder. As sugar enters the blood stream it gives a surge of energy, but after the ‘sugar rush’ comes a low as the body dispenses insulin to stabilize itself. The child can then become tired, irritable and even aggressive, with a craving for something sweet. Dieticians therefore advise that that sugar intake should be moderated and ideally come from a natural source – i.e. fruit.

Vitamins and minerals are essential not only for growth and health but for behaviour and emotional stability. Zinc is essential for good brain functioning: a deficiency can result in learning difficulties and behavioural problems, including mood swings and tantrums. Zinc is found in meat, shellfish, milk, cheese, bread and cereal. Magnesium described as a natural tranquilizer, and a deficiency can aggravate ADHD, causing restlessness and poor concentration. Magnesium occurs naturally in green leafy vegetables, nuts and pulses, bread, fish, meat and dairy produce. B vitamins are crucial for the brain and nervous system to function properly. Deficiency in the B vitamins can impair the functioning of the brain and nervous system, resulting in poor learning and memory recall, aggression and depression. B vitamins are found in meat, cod, salmon, bread, cereals, rice, eggs, vegetables, soya beans, nuts, and potatoes, dairy products, and some cereals.

Iron is very important because it helps the body to make haemoglobin which carries oxygen around the body. It has a direct effect on cognitive development, energy level and work performance. Iron deficiency has been found in high numbers of children with ADHD. Studies have shown that boosting iron levels increases concentration and school performance as well as improving behaviour. Iron is found in red meat, beans, nuts, dried fruit, whole grains (such as brown rice), fortified breakfast cereals, soya, most dark green leafy vegetables and chocolate.

Omega-3 oils (good fats) are essential for normal growth and development, including brain functioning. Deficiencies have been linked to poor memory and concentration, mood swings, depression, aggression and hyperactivity. Omega-3 oils are found in oily fish, for example fresh tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines and pilchards, but can be taken effectively and safely as a supplement. There is now compelling evidence that adding omega-3 to a child’s diet can boost intelligence and learning, as well as stabilizing ADHD. I hope found some of this useful.

Cathy Glass (