From rashes, to running wild and refusing to go to bed, kids’ problems are often blamed on junk food. But is something else going on? Our experts find out.
Happy, joyous meal times and quiet, well-behaved children are a dream, right? But ‘food’ can turn into ‘feud’ in the case of fussy eaters and mood swings, and it can create distress with allergic reactions. With Dr Google at the ready, it’s tempting to blame food additives and ban junk food. But are there other factors at play? We caught up with the experts to learn the facts and share their tips for taking the stress out of feeding kids.
The ABCs of feeding kids
Let’s start with the basics. Children need to eat regular meals and have a variety of foods — these habits can make a big difference to their behaviour.
Eating regular meals, especially breakfast, can help kids stay focused, and encourages learning. A lack of food, however, can increase frustration and aggression. Offer satisfying and minimally processed foods, such as yoghurt with fruit and nuts, or avocado or eggs on wholegrain toast.
Kids need iron and vitamin C, too. Low iron levels can lead to tiredness and lethargy. Red meat, baked beans and iron-fortified cereals are high-iron foods that most kids enjoy; and offer vitamin C-rich fruit and veg, such as oranges, berries and tomatoes.
Make sure kids have enough to drink, especially when at school. Dehydration can cause a lack of concentration and performance in the classroom. Try to avoid flavoured energy drinks. Water is best, and for a little variety serve it icy cold, or add a few berries, or a squeeze of lemon or lime juice.
Omega-3 fats may help some kids with their attention span and general behaviour. Aim for two to three serves of oily fish per week. Get creative by adding canned fish to pasta bakes or combine with mashed potato to make delicious fish cakes.
Avoiding huff ‘n’ puff
Dairy foods often get the blame for triggering asthma and blocked or runny sinuses, yet research suggests that daily dairy intake can be protective.
Accredited Practising Dietitian, Dr Megan Jensen, a University of Newcastle researcher exploring the role of nutrition and asthma in children, agrees that there’s no solid evidence in the literature to support the theory that dairy should be avoided.
“Unfortunately, there is still a widespread belief in parents of children with asthma that dairy products increase mucus production, with one in two parents reporting they avoid giving their child milk when ill.”
Unless your child has been professionally diagnosed with an allergy, she recommends dairy as an important source of nutrients for growth and development, and as part of a balanced diet for young children.
Most recently, Dr Jensen found promising links between asthma improvement and intake of vitamin D. While further research into this association is needed, she encourages people with asthma to keep a check of their overall nutrition, including vitamin D levels, as part of their asthma management plan.
The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) estimates up to 10 per cent of people with asthma experience a worsening of their symptoms, including wheezing, from sulfites in food. Sulfites (preservatives 220–228) are often found in dried fruit, soft drinks, fruit juice and sauces, but they can be avoided by keeping a close eye on the ingredients lists of packaged foods.
“Asthma has many triggers and they can vary between individuals,” says Dr Jensen. “If a food trigger is suspected, I advise parents to get a referral to an Accredited Practising Dietitian before eliminating food items.”
Foods that cause an itch
Around one in five children under the age of two develop eczema, sending many parents scratching for ways to relieve their child’s dry, itchy, red skin.
For some, the condition may be aggravated by certain foods. Many children with eczema also have allergic reactions to eggs, milk, peanuts and shellfish that can result in itchy skin or hives. But, the role of a food allergy in causing eczema remains controversial.
While there’s talk of ‘growing out’ of eczema, dermatologists describe it as an inflammatory skin condition that’s caused by a gene mutation resulting in dryer skin.
A recent study monitored over 7100 children with eczema, and found 80 per cent still experienced symptoms after five years, predicted to persist into adulthood.
Tomatoes, strawberries and citrus fruits, which are high in natural food chemicals called amines and salicylates, have also been linked to hives and itchy skin. If you feel that food is to blame, keep a food and symptom diary and take it to your doctor. Your GP can then connect you with a specialist for practical advice on managing your child’s eczema, food allergy and intolerances.
What every parent needs to know
Here are tips to follow if you think your child may have a reaction to food:
Don’t exclude whole food groups without seeking advice from an Accredited Practising Dietitian.
Keep a food and symptom diary. Start documenting what your child is eating, the time and amount they ate, their symptoms and when they appear. Remember, some food reactions build up over time, while others come on almost immediately or over a few hours.
Diet alone is rarely the cause. Work with your child’s specialist to develop an asthma, eczema, allergy or behaviour plan (as relevant).
Avoid common additives that can be problematic, such as:
Remember that any big changes to your child's diet can affect the nutrients they are getting and affect their towards food. This can cause even more problems, so always be sure to seek avice from a trained professional.
Sit down to happy meals
Eating meals as a family can sometimes be far more stressful than it should be. Paediatric Dietitian and mother of two young boys, Kathleen Perrone, shares her top three tips for happy, harmonious meal times: routine, eating together and avoiding pressure.
“Routine and structure reassures children they will be fed and this reduces the likelihood of meltdowns,” says Perrone. She suggests offering three meals and two sit-down snacks a day, with water to drink in between.
Eating with your children allows you to enjoy their company and model healthy eating behaviours. For minimal distraction and maximum engagement, Perrone encourages families to sit together and switch screens off, including your phone.
“Pressure is when an adult tries to make a child eat more or less food, and it always backfires,” says Perrone. “If you aren’t sure if you’re pressuring your child at meal times, ask yourself this: ‘Are you trying to get your child to eat more, less or different foods than they do on their own?’ If the answer is yes, then it is pressure.”
A great way to avoid pressure is to place food in the middle of the table, such as a bowl of rice, a dish of vegetables and a plate of chicken, for everyone to select from. Offering a full plate of food and insisting they eat everything on it teaches your children to override their appetite and eat until the plate is cleared, instead of stopping when they are full.
Kids thrive on whole foods, and enjoying homemade meals benefits everyone.
Get kids involved in choosing what they eat. Children of all ages can help you plan the week’s meals.
Try presenting their food in fun and creative shapes to pique their interest.
Planning ahead makes it easier to use fresh, whole foods that you have on hand.
Sit and eat together at the table with a selection of vegies that they can serve themselves.
Avoid breakfast cereals with added sugar, salt and flavourings, and instead offer kids unflavoured instant oats, scrambled eggs, grainy toast, muesli, plain yoghurt and fruit.
Swap packet snacks for fruit or vegie sticks, boiled eggs, no-added-sugar dried fruit, or homemade muesli bars.
Behaving badly with additives
When kids behave badly, sugar and artificial additives are the culprits that often spring to mind. But is this link fact or fiction?
To start with, all young children have a limited attention span, and sometimes do things without thinking. And studies have shown that simply being hungry reduces a child’s tolerance to frustration, making them more prone to tantrums and behavioural issues. So ensuring your child is eating regularly throughout the day can help.
But a food intolerance can also be behind bad behaviour. For some children, naturally occurring food chemicals (salicylates, amines and glutamate) can worsen behavioural disorders. If you suspect certain foods may be triggering behaviour symptoms in your child, an elimination diet may be an option. But this should only be attempted with medical supervision. For information, visit the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Allergy Unit website.
The debate over whether food additives, colours and preservatives affect children’s behaviour has been a controversial one for decades. While the use of food additives is tightly regulated and deemed safe by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, it’s a different story if your child is sensitive to them. Processed food, such as lollies, biscuits and soft drinks, tend to have higher doses of additives and preservatives, which is why reactions to these foods can be more common. Symptoms triggered by food intolerances vary between people, but some children can become irritable and restless, and behavioural problems, such as ADHD, can be aggravated.
While many parents blame sugar for their excitable child, studies have failed to uncover the link. So, why do kids seem hyperactive after tucking into lollies and cake? Well, context is key. At birthday parties and other celebrations, kids often overload on sugar, but it’s the presence of other children that makes them run around and get overexcited, often to the point of being disruptive.
Did you know? Hungry kids are more prone to tantrums and learning problems.