What is hyperactivity?

There are a multitude of terms for describing kids who literally 'can't sit still'. Hyperactive child syndrome is the official name for the problem. It was described in 1975 by The British Medical Journal as 'a chronic level of motor activity relative to the age of the child, occurring mainly in boys between one and sixteen years, but characteristically around six years, accompanied by short attention span, impulsive behaviour or explosive outbursts causing substantial complaints at home or in school'.

The parents of a hyperactive child face a daily challenge, but all is not lost. Great improvements in behaviour can be achieved by altering and monitoring a child's diet.

What are the symptoms and causes of hyperactivity in children?

Children(97372)Credit: MorguefileBoys are more frequently diagnosed as being hyperactive than girls, but it is quite possible that this is due to the symptoms in boys being different and more obvious, making them easier to spot. Girls usually don't display such severe or extreme symptoms. Boys tend to be loud and disruptive, whereas girls can suffer from quiet mood swings, short attention span and minor speech impediments.

It is rare that children are diagnosed until they have reached 4 or 5 years old, but babies may also be hyperactive; if your baby requires very little sleep, rocks perpetually in their cot, is restless and fidgety or suffers from colic, it may be worth seeking the advice of a doctor.

As hyperactive children get older they may display poor control or co-ordination and clumsiness. Other common symptoms include temper tantrums, poor eating and sleeping habits, learning difficulties, social and behavioural problems, and aggression. Less common symptoms that may nonetheless be significant include headaches, hay fever, and asthma.

It is notoriously difficult to accurately diagnose hyperactivity because children have varied personalities and adults perceive their behaviour differently too. What may seem like loveable energy to one person, can seem boisterous and disruptive to another. Likewise, a child may seek attention in a certain type of situation. If you suspect that your child suffers from hyperactive tendencies, keep a record of their behaviour. Also make a note of what they have eaten, who else was present, and any other detail you think might be significant.

The cause of hyperactivity is still not really known. There have been theories that it has something to do with minor brain damage, but medical evidence is not strong enough to support them. What is known is that it is passed from parent to child. It has also been proved that, although food in itself cannot cause the condition, it can influence its severity. Certain food types can cause an allergic reaction. Certain compounds found in food additives cannot be broken down due to an enzyme deficiency (that seems to go hand in hand with the propensity towards hyperactivity); the child therefore does not digest the food properly. Instead, toxins are released in the body, thus causing behavioural problems.

Before taking steps to change your child's diet, seek medical advice, as any form of behavioural abnormality may be caused by other factors.

Keeping the diary

The first step is keeping a food and behaviour diary. What is your child eating? Are they experiencing any adverse reactions to certain foods? Upset stomach? Diarrhoea? A red rash? Pale complexion? Be specific with times and symptoms. This is the only real way to determine the effect certain foods are having. Here is a list of the main types of food linked to hyperactivity; look out for these in particular and you are a long way to controlling your child's condition.


Additives, flavourings and colourings can be natural or artificial, and are added to foods to make them last longer, or taste and look better. They aren't necessarily harmful. In fact some are vitamins and preservatives that can help prevent food poisoning. The additives you should look out for (that have the strongest links with hyperactivity) are E102, E110, E124, E127, E210, E219, E320, E321 and the antioxidants BHA and BHT.

Unfortunately, E numbers are not always listed on packaging. The only real way to make sure that your child has as few additives in their diet as possible is to avoid processed food as much as possible, and buy organic food wherever possible. Some simple changes that can be made are to buy plain fish and not fish fingers, and lean meat from the butcher rather than frozen burgers. Make sure that fruit and vegetables don't come out of a tin. Instead of flavoured yoghurt, buy plain and add your own fresh ingredients.

Sweets(97370)Credit: MorguefileSugar

Another major factor in sparking hyperactivity is added sugar in food. The difficulty is that a food may be completely additive free, but be high in sugar.

A rush in energy can be caused by blood sugar levels shooting up; this might happen after consumption of chocolate, biscuits, cakes and fizzy drinks. If this energy rush can be controlled somewhat, the reaction will be less harsh.

It is ok for a child to eat high fibre foods that may have a large amount of sugar, because the fibre inhibits the absorption of the sugar in the body. Strangely some foods that have far less sugar, but no fibre at all, can be far more harmful. It's about balancing the fibre and sugar intake, so always be aware of this when reading packaging.

Beware of labelling though as 'sugar free' normally means that artificial sweeteners are used as an alternative; these can be just as bad, if not worse. 'No added sugar' can mean that the product has a lot of natural sugar, which can also play havoc with a child's mood. 'Low sugar' may only mean that this version of the product has less sugar than the regular version; it doesn't necessarily mean it has an acceptable amount.

All of this seems complicated but, in general, if you avoid the following types of sugar, you should see positive results; sucrose, glucose, dextrose, glucose syrup, and corn syrup. Fructose can be misleading. Because it comes from fruit, many people believe it is healthy.

There are ways of giving sweet treats to a hyperactive child; experiment with dried fruits, and give them chocolate with a high cocoa content (at least 60%).

Other tips

  • Replace cola and sugary drinks with water and fruit based drinks.
  • Give your child small meals often instead of large meals at long intervals.
  • Avoid vitamin supplements as they can contain a lot of sugar and additives; try to give your child vitamins and minerals from natural sources instead.
  • Give your child a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, meat, eggs and beans, with some bread, pasta and rice. Make it low in sugar and additives.

Fruit and Veg(97371)Credit: MorguefileIn conclusion, after about a month of a revised diet, you should start to notice improvements in your child's behaviour. If not, the condition might be related to a specific food, so try cutting out certain food types for periods of time to find the cause. Likely culprits are milk, eggs, wheat and tomatoes, but it could be almost anything; trial and error is the only way to find out. The good news is that hyperactivity can be controlled to a certain extent and children usually grow out of it at some point.