November 29, 2017

Food and Children’s Behaviour

Sugar, food additives and caffeine are often blamed for behavioural problems in children.


Some parents think eating too much sugar makes children over active. There is no scientific proof that sugar is the cause of hyperactive behaviour in children. Feelings surrounding special events like birthday parties may cause children to behave in a hyperactive manner.

Too much sugary foods may:

  • Replace the nutritious foods needed for growth and development
  • Cause dental cavities
  • Lead to unhealthy weights

Food Additives

  • Food additives are used to prevent food from spoiling, and to make them taste and look better. Some food additives can be healthy and help increase the nutrition content of a food item.
  • Food additives come from either natural or artificial sources and are more common in processed and highly processed foods.
  • In Canada, food additives must appear on the ingredient list of food when added to foods.
  • Research shows that there may be a link between hyperactivity in children and eating certain food additives together (such as specific preservatives and food colouring).
  • If you are concerned about the effect of certain food additives on your child’s behaviour, you can avoid giving foods that may have those additives. For more information and assistance speak with a dietitian or your family doctor.


  • Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, cola drinks, energy drinks, iced tea, chocolate and many headache and cold medicines.
  • Research shows that too much caffeine may lead to headaches, sleeping problems, and feeling irritable, nervous, or restless.
  • If a food or drink has both caffeine and sugar, it is likely that the caffeine, not the sugar, will cause a child to be restless.
  • The effect of caffeine is greater in children than in adults because of their small body sizes.
  • Some children are more sensitive to caffeine than others and may feel the effects of having cola or chocolate much faster.
  • Energy drinks can have up to three times the caffeine found in colas. For this reason, energy drinks should not be given to children.

Maximum daily amount of caffeine by age

  • 0-4 years – 0 mg
  • 4-6 years – 45 mg
  • 7-9 years – 62.5 mg
  • 10-12 years – 85 mg
  • Energy drinks are not recommended for children. These drinks contain a large amount of caffeine and can temporarily increase heart rate, breathing and blood pressure.

Tips to Improve Your Child’s Behaviour

  • Avoid drinks and foods that contain caffeine.
  • Limit processed foods.
  • Offer a variety of nutritious foods based on Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide.
  • Have regular meal and snack times.
  • Offer water for thirst.
  • Make sure they get enough sleep.
  • Encourage your children to be physically active.

Remember, their behaviour may also be normal childhood excitement.

For more information

For more articles about Healthy Eating, please check out our Resources section.

This information was provided by Toronto Public Health. Information provided on the FoodReach website does not replace any advice given by a doctor and does not provide all of the necessary information regarding your health, nutrition and preventing illnesses.