How does children’s diet affect their learning?

 What children eat can affect the way they sleep, behave and learn. Wendy Fidler explores the links between food, additives, supplements and children's learning. 

In a consumer driven world it's easy to accept social trends for processed, junk food instead of questioning possibly biased marketing which can promote a distorted image of what should constitute a child's diet.

 Junk food is addictive - once children have developed a taste for it other foods taste bland and unappealing, so the best advice is to cut out processed food and avoid adding extra sugar or salt to children's food, right from the start.

 Essential elements in children's diets can affect their brain development, their desire and motivation to learn, their attitude and ability to attend, to actively listen, to assimilate facts, to relax and sleep well:

'Young children need more fat and energy for the whole purpose of growing and living - to give them low-fat and sugar-free products is a bad idea'

Tam Fry
National Obesity Forum


Parents' concerns about children becoming over weight results in them being put on low fat diets, but this may be misguided.

Children burn substantially more fat than adults relative to their calorie intake.

Over a third of a child's energy intake should be made up of fat according to researchers at Pennsylvania State University, a recommendation in line with UK requirements.  However, a diet high in fat, particularly saturated and transfats, should be avoided.

What are Transfats?

Processed foods often contain transfats - or hydrogenated vegetable oils. Research has shown that instead of aiding brain function, transfats clog up the brain rather than lubricating it.

Omega 3

 Children's brains need Omega 3 fatty acids to promote neural activity and function well. Fatty acids are found in oily fish (such as mackerel, herring, salmon and sardines) and flax oils - they can't be made by children's bodies. Omega 3 is increasingly missing from children's diets. As a result, childhood mental illness, learning difficulties, attention deficits, skin problems and depression are increasing. 

Fat Food for Growing Brains

While a baby is in the womb, the brain grows more rapidly than in any other stage of infant or child development. And during the first year after birth, the brain continues to grow rapidly, tripling in size by an infant's first birthday. It makes good sense for a pregnant and lactating mother to supplement her diet with brain-building nutrients, primarily the omega 3 fatty acids found in fish and flax oil - the recommended supplementation is one tablespoon of flax oil daily, or four ounces of tuna or salmon three times a week.

Omega 3 oils are essential for:

  • Behavioural, Cognitive and Mood Health: About 30% of the dry weight of the brain and eyes are comprised of fat. A good supply of Omega 3 is crucial for retinal and brain cell function. It can also help revitalise nerves.
  • Skin Health: Omegas give skin and hair cells greater fluidity and flexibility. The skin's cutaneous permeability barrier is maintained, thus preventing trans-dermal water loss that result in dry skin.

Breast is Best - Why is this? 

Children who have been breastfed are less likely to have attention deficit disorders and the longer the period of breast-feeding, the less the likelihood of having ADD or ADHD. The reason seems to be that breast milk is high in important fatty acids,

Prior to 1997 most milk formulas contained none or little of these fatty acids.


ADHD and Iron Deficiency

For children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) life can be fast and furious. ADHD children are physically frenetic and often exhibit a range of mental issues including impulsiveness and mood swings.

It is now commonly accepted that ADHD children respond well to a diet low in sugar and artificial additives such as sweeteners, flavourings, colourings and preservatives.

ADHD: Just cutting out diet drinks and orange squash can have dramatic results on children's ability to focus and concentrate.

Eighty four per cent of ADHD children have abnormally low levels of iron, compared with only 18% non-ADHD.  Additionally, children with the most pronounced the symptoms of ADHD have the lowest levels of iron.

Iron plays an important role in regulating mood and behaviour; it helps to regulate the activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine - a brain chemical that has diverse effects on physical and mental processes and this may account for the association of iron deficiency with neurological problems.

Indirect evidence to support dopamine depletion as a factor in ADHD comes from the knowledge that Ritalin (a common drug treatment for ADHD) boosts dopamine levels in the brain.

For ADHD children, iron may be a very precious metal.

It's a fact - Food Additives can affect Children's Behaviour

 Certain chemicals in the products children eat can trigger irritability, hyperactivity, headaches, asthma, eczema and hives. These include:

·         Artificial (synthetic) colouring

·         Artificial (synthetic) flavouring

·         Aspartame (artificial sweetener)

·         Artificial (synthetic) preservatives BHA, BHT, TBHQ

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener and is easily identified on cans and packets. Monosodium glutamate is flavour enhancer E621; it is in hydrolysed vegetable protein, gelatine and yeast extract. Aspartame and MSG are called 'excito toxins' - i.e. they excite the brain and are toxic - both can cause severe headaches.

Why can't autistic children tolerate wheat and milk?

Children on the autistic spectrum do not completely break down gluten and casein. Gluten is the protein found in most grains (wheat, oats, spelt, rye, barley) and casein is the protein found in dairy produce. The undigested proteins end up as little bits called peptides which pass through the walls of the stomach (which is often damaged and 'leaky' in autistic children - hence the common stomach problems such as wind, constipation and diarrhoea).

Gluten breaks down into a peptide called gluteomorphine and casein breaks down into the peptide caseomorphorphine. Children become literally addicted to these peptides which whiz around their bodies; the peptides work in the same way as morphine or heroin.  By removing the foods with gluten or casein the production of the peptides and their effect stops, resulting in changes in calmer and more socially appropriate behaviour. 

Neuroscience and Nutrition - The Brain Facts

 Experts Dr Felicity de Zulueta, the head of trauma at the Maudsley Hospital, and Dr Ernest Gralton, a forensic psychiatrist who works with adolescents, presented evidence at the Kids Company* conference that the brain itself is changed by traumatic early childhood experiences. They say nutrition is very important for children who have been traumatised, abused or neglected, and that only healthy food that is free from trans and hydrogenated fats and rich in Omega 3 can help re-build their damaged brains.



National Obesity Forum The NOF was established in May 2000 to raise awareness of the growing impact of obesity and overweight on our patients and our National Health Service.  Membership is open to all healthcare professionals and is free.



Goddard Blythe, S. (2005), The Well Balanced Child Hawthorne Press, Stroud, Glos

Johnson, C. et al (2006), The Nutritional Quality of Foods Advertised on UK Children's TV, British Journal of School Nursing 1(1) pp23-28

Madge, N. And Barker, J. (2007), Risk in Childhood, RSA, London

Palmer, S. (2007), Detoxing Childhood, Orion Books, London


Wendy Fidler is an independent education consultant, journalist, trainer and inspector. She specialises in education law, Montessori education, the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and Special Educational Needs (SEN). Wendy chairs the Dyspraxia Foundation's education panel and is a member of the Special Education Consortium (SEC) Policy Group.


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Wendy Fidler

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