Skip to main content

The influence of children’s diet on their cognition and behavior


The rapid growth of the brain and its high metabolic rate suggests that it is reasonable to consider whether their diet may influence the cognitive development of children. To date although there are few nutritional recommendations that can be made with confidence, there is a growing body of evidence that diet can influence the development and functioning of the brain. Several lines of evidence support the view that the diet of the mother during pregnancy, and the diet of the infant in the perinatal period, have long-term consequences. The provision of fatty acids has been the most studied aspect of nutrition, although the evidence is lacking that supplementation has long-term benefits. There is increasing evidence that the missing of breakfast has negative consequences late in the morning and a working hypothesis is that meals of a low rather than high glycemic load are beneficial. The aim is to introduce a range of topics to those for whom this area is of potential interest. Where appropriate the main themes and conclusions are summarized and attention is drawn to review articles that allow those interested to go further.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    Abernethy LJ, Cooke RWI, Foulder-Hughes L (2004) Caudate and hippocampal volumes, intelligence, and motor impairment in 7-year-old children who were born preterm. Pediatr Res 55:884–893

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Anderson JW, Johnstone BM, Remley DT (1999) Breast-feeding and cognitive development: a meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr 70:525–535

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Barker DJ (2006) Adult consequences of foetal growth restriction. Clin Obstet Gynecol 49:270–283

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Bateman B, Warner JO, Hutchinson E, Dean T, Rowlandson P, Gant C, Grundy J, Fitzgerald C, Stevenson J (2004) The effects of a double blind, placebo controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children. Arch Dis Child 89:506–511

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Benton D (2005) Diet cerebral energy metabolism and psychological functioning. In: Prasad C, Lieberman H, Kanarek R (eds) Nutrition, brain & behavior, vol 3. Nutritional neuroscience: overview of an emerging field. CRC Press: Boca Raton, pp 57–71

  6. 6.

    Benton D (2007) The impact of diet on anti-social behaviour. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 31:752–774

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Benton D (2008) Micronutrient intake and the cognitive development and behavioural problems of children. Eur J Nutr (this issue)

  8. 8.

    Benton D (2008) Sucrose and behavioural problems. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 48:385–401

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Benton D, Brett V, Brain PF (1987) Glucose improves attention and reaction to frustration in children. Biol Psychol 24:95–100

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Benton D, Jarvis M (2007) The role of breakfast and a mid-morning snack on the ability of children to concentrate at school. Physiol Behav 90:382–385

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Benton D, Maconie A, Williams C (2007) The influence of the glycaemic load of breakfast on the behaviour of children in school. Physiol Behav 92:717–724

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Benton D, Ruffin M-P, Lassel T, Nabb S, Messaoud N, Vinoy S, Desor D, Lang V (2003) The delivery rate of dietary carbohydrates affects cognitive performances in both rats and humans. Psychopharmacology 166:86–90

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Benton D, Slater O, Donohoe RT (2001) The influence of breakfast and a snack on psychological functioning. Physiol Behav 74:559–571

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Bhutta AT, Cleves MA, Casey PH, Cradock MM, Anand KJ (2002) Cognitive and behavioral outcomes of school-aged children who were born preterm: a meta-analysis. J Am Med Assoc 288:728–737

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Bourre JM (2006) Effects of nutrients (in food) on the structure and function of the nervous system: update on dietary requirements for brain. Part 2: macronutrients. J Nutr Health Aging 10:386–399

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Birdsong D (1999) Second Language acquisition and the critical period hypothesis. Lawrence/Erlbaum, London/New York

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Boris M, Mandel FS (1994) Foods and additives are common causes of the attention deficit hyperactive disorder in children. Ann Allergy 72:462–468

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Busch CR, Taylor HA, Kanarek RB, Holcomb PJ (2002) The effects of a confectionery snack on attention in young boys. Physiol Behav 77:333–340

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Carter CM, Urbanowicz M, Hemsley R, Mantilla L, Strobel S, Graham PJ, Taylor E (1993) Effects of a few food diets in attention deficit disorder. Arch Dis Childhood 69:564–568

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Chugani HT (1998) A critical period of brain development: studies of cerebral glucose utilization with PET. Prevent Med 27:184–188

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Clandinin MT, Van Aerde JE, Merkel KL, Harris CL, Springer MA, Hansen JW, Diersen-Schade DA (2005) Growth and development of preterm infants fed infant formulas containing docosahexaenoic acid and arachidonic acid. J Pediatr 146:461–468

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Der G, Batty GD, Deary IJ (2006) Effect of breast feeding on intelligence in children: prospective study, sibling pairs analysis, and meta-analysis. Br Med J 333(7575):945

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Durnin JVGA (1981) Basal metabolic rate in man. Joint FAO/WHO/UNU expert consultation on energy and protein requirements

  24. 24.

    Egger J, Carter CM, Graham PJ, Gumley D, Soothill JF (1985) Controlled trial of oligoantigenic treatment in the hyperkinetic syndrome. Lancet 1:540–545

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Eilander A, Hundscheid DC, Osendarp SJ, Transler C, Zock PL (2007) The effects of n-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on visual and cognitive development throughout childhood: a review of human studies. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 76:189–203

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Epstein HT (1986) Stages in human brain development. Brain Res 395:114–119

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Feingold B (1975) Why your child is hyperactive. Random House, New York

    Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Fewtrell MS, Abbott RA, Kennedy K, Singhal A, Morley R, Caine E, Jamieson C, Cockburn F, Lucas A (2004) Randomized, double-blind trial of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation with fish oil and borage oil in preterm infants. J Pediatr 144:471–479

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Galler JR, Ramsey F (1989) A follow-up study of the influence of early malnutrition on development: behavior at home and at school. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 28:254–261

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Galler JR, Ramsey F, Solimano G, Lowell WE (1983) The influence of early malnutrition on subsequent behavioural development. II. Classroom behavior. J Am Acad Child Psychiatry 22:16–22

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Grantham-McGregor S, Baker-Henningham H (2005) Review of the evidence linking protein and energy to mental development. Public Health Nutr 8(7A):1191–1201

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Grantham-McGregor SM, Chang SM, Walker SP, Himes JH (1991) Nutritional supplementation, psychosocial stimulation, and mental development of stunted children: the Jamaican study. Lancet 338:1–5

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Henrichsen L, Skinhoj K, Andersen CE (1986) Delayed growth and reduced intelligence in 9–17 old intrauterine growth retarded children compared with their monozygous co-twins. Acta Paediatr Scand 75:31–35

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Hibbeln JR, Davis JM, Steer C, Emmett P, Rogers I, Williams C, Golding J (2007) Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopment outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study. Lancet 369:578–585

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Ingwersen J, Defeyter MA, Kennedy DO, Wesnes KA, Scholey AB (2007) A low glycaemic index breakfast cereal preferentially prevents children’s cognitive performance from declining throughout the morning. Appetite 49:240–244

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Isaacs EB, Gadian DG, Sabatini S, Quinn BT, Fischl BR, Lucas A (2008) The effect of early human diet on caudate volumes and IQ. Paediatr Res 63:308–314

    Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Jacobson MF, Schardt D (1999) Diet, ADHD and behaviour: a quarter-century review. Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Jain A, Concato J, Leventhal JM (2002) How good is the evidence linking breastfeeding and intelligence? Pediatrics 109:1044–1053

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Johnson S (2007) Cognitive and behavioural outcomes following very preterm birth. Semin Fetal Neonatal Med 12:363–373

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Kanarek RB, Swinney D (1990) Effects of food snacks on cognitive performance in male college students. Appetite 14:15–27

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Kavale KA, Forness SR (1983) Hyperactivity and diet treatment: a meta-analysis of the Feingold hypothesis. J Learn Disabil 16:324–330

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Lauritzen L, Jorgensen MH, Olsen SF, Straarup EM, Michaelsen KF (2005) Maternal fish oil supplementation in lactation: effect on developmental outcome in breast-fed infants. Reprod Nutr Dev 45:535–547

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Liu J, Raine A, Venables PH, Mednick SA (2004) Malnutrition at age 3 years and externalizing behaviour problems at ages 8, 11, and 17 years. Am J Psychiatry 161:2005–2013

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Liu J, Raine A (2006) The effect of childhood malnutrition on externalizing behaviour. Curr Opin Pediatr 18:565–570

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Lucas A, Morley R, Cole TJ (1998) Randomised trial of early diet in preterm babies and later intelligence quotient. Br Med J 317:1481–1487

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Lucas A, Morley R, Cole TJ, Gore SM, Lucas PJ, Crowle P, Pearse R, Boon AJ, Powell R (1990) Early diet in preterm babies and developmental status at 18 months. Lancet 335:1477–1481

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Lund-Anderson H (1979) Transport of glucose from blood to brain. Physiol Rev 59:305–352

    Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Mahoney CR, Taylor HA, Kanarek RB, Samuel P (2005) Effect of breakfast composition on cognitive processes in elementary school children. Physiol Behav 85:635–645

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    McCann D, Barrett A, Cooper A, Crumpler D, Dalen L, Grimshaw K, Kitchin E, Lok K, Porteous L, Prince E, Sonuga-Barke E, Warner JO, Stevenson J (2007) Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet 370:1560–1567

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    McCann JC, Ames BN (2005) Is docosahexaenoic acid, an n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid, required for development of normal brain function? An overview of evidence from cognitive and behavioural tests in humans and animals. Am J Clin Nutr 82:281–295

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    McNay EC, Fries TM, Gold PE (2000) Decreases in rat extra cellular hippocampal glucose concentration associated with cognitive demand during a spatial task. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 97:2881–2885

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Mitchell EA, Robinson E, Clark PM, Becroft DM, Glavish N, Pattison NS, Pryor JE, Thompson JM, Wild CJ (2004) Maternal nutritional risk factors for small for gestational age babies in a developed country: a case-control study. Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed 89:F431–F435

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Morley R, Cole TJ, Powell R, Lucas A (1988) Mother’s choice to provide breast milk and developmental outcome. Arch Dis Child 63:1382–1385

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Nabb S, Benton D (2006) The influence on cognition and mood of the interaction between the macronutrient content of breakfast and glucose tolerance. Physiol Behav 87:16–23

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  55. 55.

    Nabb S, Benton D (2006) The effect of the interaction between glucose tolerance and breakfasts varying in carbohydrate and fibre on mood and cognition. Nutr Neurosci 9:161–168

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    Naeye RL, Diener MM, Dellinger WS, Blanc WA (1969) Urban poverty: effects on prenatal nutrition. Science 166:1026

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    Olsen SF, Olsen J, Frische G (1990) Does fish consumption during pregnancy increase foetal growth? A study of the size of the newborn, placental weight and gestational age in relation to fish consumption during pregnancy. Int J Epidemiol 19:971–977

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  58. 58.

    Olsen SF, Østerdal ML, Salvig JD, Kesmodel U, Henriksen TB, Hedegaard M, Secher NJ (2006) Duration of pregnancy in relation to seafood intake during early and mid pregnancy: prospective cohort. Eur J Epidemiol 21:749–758

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    Ortolani C, Pastorello EA (2006) Food allergies and food intolerances. Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol 20:467–483

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  60. 60.

    Pollitt E, Mathews R (1998) Breakfast and cognition: an integrative summary. Am J Clin Nutr 67:804S–813S

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    Pollitt E, Saco-Pollitt C, Jahari A, Husaini MA, Huang J (2000) Effects of an energy and micronutrient supplement on mental development and behavior under natural conditions in undernourished children in Indonesia. Eur J Clin Nutr 54(Suppl 2):S80–S90

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  62. 62.

    Richards M, Hardy R, Kuh D, Wadsworth ME (2001) Birth weight and cognitive function in the British 1946 birth cohort: longitudinal population based study. Br Med J 322:199–203

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  63. 63.

    Ruben RJ (1997) A time frame of critical/sensitive periods of language development. Acta Otolaryngol 117:202–205

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  64. 64.

    Schab DW, Trinh NH (2004) Do artificial food colours promote hyperactivity in children with hyperactive syndromes? A meta-analysis of double-blind placebo-controlled trials. J Dev Behav Pediatr 25:423–434

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. 65.

    Shenkin SD, Starr JM, Deary IJ (2004) Birth weight and cognitive ability in childhood: a systematic review. Psychol Bull 130:989–1013

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. 66.

    Simmer K, Patole S (2004) Longchain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in preterm infants. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2004(1):CD000375

    Google Scholar 

  67. 67.

    Smith AP, Rich N (1998) Effects of consumption of snacks on simulated driving. Percept Motor Skills 87:817–818

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  68. 68.

    Thayer RE (1987) Energy tiredness and tension. Effects of a sugar snack versus moderate exercise. J Pers Soc Psychol 52:119–125

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  69. 69.

    Vaisman N, Voet H, Akivis A, Vakil E (1996) Effect of breakfast timing on the cognitive functions of elementary school students. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 150:1089–1092

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  70. 70.

    Walker SP, Chang SM, Powell CA, Simonoff E, Grantham-McGregor SM (2007) Early childhood stunting is associated with poor psychological functioning in late adolescence and effects are reduced by psychosocial stimulation. J Nutr 137:2464–2469

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  71. 71.

    Walker SP, Chang SM, Powell CA, Grantham-McGregor SM (2005) Effects of early childhood psychosocial stimulation and nutritional supplementation on cognition and education in growth-stunted Jamaican children: prospective cohort study. Lancet 366:1804–1807

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. 72.

    Wender EH (1986) The food additive-free diet in the treatment of behaviour disorders: a review. Exp Behav Pediatr 7:35–42

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  73. 73.

    Wesnes KA, Pincock C, Richardson D, Helm G, Hails S (2003) Breakfast reduces declines in attention and memory over the morning in school children. Appetite 41:329–331

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. 74.

    Willerman L, Churchill JA (1967) Intelligence and birth weight in identical twins. Child Dev 38:623–629

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  75. 75.

    Winick M, Meyer KK, Harris RC (1975) Malnutrition and environmental enrichment by early adoption. Science 190:1173–1175

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  76. 76.

    Wolraich ML, Lindgren SD, Stumbo PJ, Stegink LD, Appelbaum MI, Kiritsy MC (1994) Effects of diets high in sucrose or aspartame on the behaviour and cognitive performance of children. New Engl J Med 330:301–307

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  77. 77.

    Wolraich ML, Wilson DB, White JW (1995) The effect of sugar on behavior or cognition in children. A meta-analysis. J Am Med Assoc 274:1617–1621

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. 78.

    Wyon DP, Abrahamsson L, Jartelius M, Fletcher RJ (1997) An experimental study of the effect of energy intake at breakfast on the test performance of 10-year-old children in school. Int J Food Sci Nutr 48:5–12

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  79. 79.

    Zhou SJ, Baghurst P, Gibson RA, Makrides M (2007) Home environment, not duration of breast-feeding, predicts intelligence quotient of children at four years. Nutrition 23:236–241

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The authors would like to thank the reviewers Bonnie Kaplan and Joachim Westenhöfer for their useful comments and discussions.

This work was commissioned by the Nutrition and Mental Performance Task Force of the European branch of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI Europe). Industry members of this task force are Barilla G. & R. Fratelli, Coca-Cola European Union Group, DSM, Groupe Danone, Kraft Foods, Nestlé, Südzucker/BENEO Group, Unilever and Wild Flavors. For further information about ILSI Europe, please call + 32-2-771.00.14 or email: The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of ILSI Europe.

Conflict of interests The author has no financial or other interests that might conflict with the views expressed.

Author information




Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Benton, D., ILSI Europe a.i.s.b.l.. The influence of children’s diet on their cognition and behavior. Eur J Nutr 47, 25–37 (2008).

Download citation


  • breakfast
  • brain development
  • food intolerance
  • malnutrition