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  • Writer's pictureCoach Patty, HealthSmart! Kids

5 Foods That Cause Aggression in Toddlers

Updated: May 15

a child showing aggression by pulling his mother's hair

Are you wondering if certain foods could be influencing your toddler's aggressive behavior?

As parents, we're constantly navigating the maze of nutrition for our kids to ensure they have a balanced diet and grow up healthy and happy. When it comes to behavior, we may underestimate the role that certain foods can play. Today we're identifying foods that cause aggression in toddlers. Read on to learn about some main culprits to address in your child's diet for aggressive behavior.

Let's face it, it can be tricky sometimes to figure out what is age-appropriate behavior for our kids, or when it's something bigger. While it's natural for toddlers to have their moments of frustration and tantrums, it's important to recognize that certain foods can be toddler aggression triggers. By learning about which foods to watch out for, we can create a supportive environment where our kids can grow and flourish emotionally.

Foods That Cause Aggression in Toddlers

Let's check out five typical troublemaker foods linked to aggression in toddlers, with solutions for each:

1. Sugar

Ahh, the sugar rush and crash. We've all witnessed when our kids have an immediate burst of energy that follows a sugary treat. But what goes up must come down. For toddlers, whose bodies are still developing and adjusting to various stimuli, the impact of refined sugars can be even more pronounced. Foods like candies, cookies, and sugary drinks cause a rapid spike in blood sugar levels, leading to a surge in energy. However, this energy surge is often short-lived and followed by a crash, leaving toddlers feeling tired, irritable, and even prone to tantrums. These fluctuations in energy levels can exacerbate mood swings and contribute to moments of aggression.

Solution: Instead of relying on sugary snacks to satisfy your toddler's sweet tooth, consider offering healthier alternatives. Fresh fruits like strawberries, blueberries, and sliced apples make excellent choices for satisfying cravings while providing essential vitamins and fiber. Yogurt with natural sweeteners or homemade treats made with reduced sugar content can also offer a delicious and nutritious alternative to traditional sweets. By choosing snacks that provide sustained energy without the rollercoaster ride of refined sugars, you can help stabilize your toddler's mood and behavior.

2. Artificial Colors and Flavors

Our kids' favorite packaged snacks and treats often contain a laundry list of artificial colors and flavors to appeal to them in every way. While these additives may seem harmless, they can have a significant impact on your toddler's behavior. Research suggests that artificial colors (food dyes) and artificial flavors may increase hyperactivity and behavioral issues in some children, including toddlers. These additives are also specifically linked to irritability and aggression in children who consume them.

Solution: Luckily, there are now some healthier alternatives available for your child's favorite foods that are made with more natural ingredients, including color pigments derived from fruits and vegetables. Check out some of the more natural brands for your kids' favorites here.

And if you're still on the fence about how artificial colors can cause big problems for kids, check out this free PDF guide by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that shares the research about the effects of food dyes found in our kids' favorite products.

a bowl of chocolate cereal with artificial color marshmallows on top

3. Preservatives

Packaged snacks and processed foods commonly contain different preservatives to enhance taste, appearance, and shelf life. Like artificial colors and flavors, these additives can disrupt neurotransmitter function in the brain, leading to mood swings, irritability, and difficulty focusing.

Solution: When shopping for snacks and meals for your toddler, prioritize whole foods over processed options whenever possible. Whole foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains provide essential nutrients without the harmful additives found in many processed products. Reading labels carefully and choosing products labeled "natural" or "organic" can also help minimize your toddler's exposure to artificial colors and preservatives. Additionally, consider preparing homemade snacks using fresh ingredients to ensure quality and control over what goes into your toddler's diet.

4. Highly Processed Foods

Fast food, frozen meals, and packaged snacks are convenient options for busy parents, but unfortunately they often come at the expense of nutritional value. These highly processed foods are typically high in refined sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium, while lacking essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber. A diet rich in processed foods can leave toddlers feeling sluggish, moody, and prone to behavioral issues like aggression. The lack of nutrients and the presence of harmful additives in these foods can negatively impact brain function and contribute to mood swings.

Solution: While it's understandable to rely on convenience foods occasionally, try to prioritize whole, nutrient-dense options as much as possible. Incorporating a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains into your toddler's diet ensures they receive the essential nutrients needed for optimal growth and development. Meal prepping and planning ahead can help streamline the process of providing nutritious meals and snacks for your toddler. By making whole foods the foundation of your toddler's diet, you can support their overall health and well-being while minimizing the risk of behavioral issues.

5. Caffeine

Although caffeine may not be a staple in your toddler's diet, it can still find its way into their system through sources like chocolate, certain sodas, and even some medications. Caffeine is a stimulant that affects the central nervous system, increasing alertness and energy levels. However, in toddlers, whose bodies are more sensitive to its effects, caffeine can disrupt sleep patterns and contribute to irritability and restlessness. These symptoms can exacerbate existing behavioral issues and make it challenging for toddlers to regulate their emotions effectively.

Solution: Be vigilant about monitoring your toddler's caffeine intake and minimize their exposure to caffeinated foods and beverages. Opt for caffeine-free alternatives whenever possible, especially when it comes to beverages like soda and tea. When offering chocolate to your toddler, choose varieties with lower cocoa content, as they contain less caffeine. Additionally, be mindful of any medications your toddler may be taking and inquire about caffeine content if applicable. By limiting your toddler's consumption of caffeine, you can help maintain a more stable mood and promote healthier sleep patterns.

a toddler holding a lollipop

It's Important to Consider Food Sensitivities and Allergies

Some toddlers may have sensitivities or allergies to certain foods, which can manifest as behavioral issues, including aggression. While every child is different and any food can cause a problem, common culprits include dairy, gluten, soy, and artificial additives like food dyes. When toddlers consume foods they are sensitive or allergic to, their immune system may mount a reaction, triggering inflammation and affecting brain function. This can lead to a range of symptoms, including mood swings, irritability, and aggression.

Solution: Pay close attention to your toddler's reactions to different foods and ingredients, especially if they exhibit behavioral changes after eating certain foods. Keep a food diary to track their diet and any associated symptoms, which can help identify potential triggers. If you suspect your toddler has a food sensitivity or allergy, consult with a healthcare professional for further evaluation and guidance. They may recommend an elimination diet or allergy testing to pinpoint specific triggers and develop a suitable dietary plan. By addressing underlying food sensitivities or allergies, you can help alleviate behavioral issues and promote a happier, healthier toddler.

Putting It All Together: Choosing Foods to Prevent Aggression in Toddlers

In summary, the foods your toddler eats can have a significant impact on their behavior and overall well-being. By choosing nourishing options, while limiting artificial ingredients and other additives, you can support their development and and ward off aggression due to certain foods. Providing a balanced diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods while minimizing exposure to refined sugars, artificial additives, and caffeine sets the foundation for healthy growth and optimal behavior. Don't forget, every child is different, so keep an eye on your toddler's specific needs and reach out to healthcare experts if necessary to get the best possible care and support.

Dealing with food refusal in toddlers adds to feeding difficulties for sure! It's not uncommon to see behavioral issues in toddlers with picky eating habits.

picky eater book Build a Better Eater

Helping parents take the "icky" out of picky and build better eaters at home has been a passion of mine for a couple of decades now. Grab a copy of my super short, picky eating plan to help your child get on the right track with brave tasting and developing a healthier relationship with food.

~ Coach Patty, HealthSmart! Kids


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a little girl having a pretend play picnic outside

All blog content shared through HealthSmart! Kids is for informational purposes only and not to be construed as medical advice. Always talk with your qualified health care provider for managing your health care needs.

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