Unraveling the Connection Between Food and Aggression in Children


Aggression is a difficult and sometimes devastating symptom that occurs in children for varied reasons—some known and some unknown.

The correlation between food and behavior intrigued me 20 years ago, and sparked my career as a nutrition researcher and clinician.

And aggression is one of the areas parents are most concerned with, when their child has it. I feel for all of them – the children when they can express it later on often feel terrible about it and trapped by this uncontrollable response. And parents worry so much about what this might mean for their child’s future.

It’s a difficult area to study for many reasons, especially for children and adults with autism that cannot speak. Causes and triggers of aggression are difficult for any child to understand and describe (autism or not).

So when can aggression be caused by food and/or improved by dietary choices?

Pain (often gastrointestinal) can cause people to injure themselves or others. We know this because parents and doctors report that when serious GI disorders are addressed, aggression has been known to disappear. Supporting the gut with a special diet can be very beneficial.

Additionally, an imbalance of neurotransmitters or hormones can cause aggression, this can be caused by many things including puberty or microbial pathogens but can also be caused by food reactions, or nutrient deficiencies.

Potential causes of aggression we’ll cover in depth include:

  • Gluten, dairy, soy and food allergies
  • Sugar
  • Phenols and salicylates
  • Amines and glutamate
  • Nutrient deficiencies 

Certainly, aggression can happen from the frustration or anger associated with a child being denied food.  For the purpose of this article though, we will focus on foods that can trigger/cause aggression from consumption.

Gluten, Dairy and Food Allergens


There is much support for the notion that gluten and dairy can lead to aggression – including published articles and case studies, and a myriad of online anecdotes.

Gluten and dairy can cause aggression in several ways. While not all of the mechanisms have been identified as yet, I do have some theories. If you are eating these foods and your body is creating opiates, opiates themselves can cause mood changes.  Additionally, opiates peak and drop, these “withdrawals” from these opiate-compounds can cause irritability and aggression.  Also, pain from these foods could cause aggression. Regardless of the underlying mechanism in each case, aggression can improve with a gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free diet.

Other food allergens can also cause aggression. Doris Rapp, M.D., explains in her book, Is this Your Child, how aggression can be a symptom of food allergy and describes a variety of child case studies where a food allergen (specific to that individual) caused aggressive behavior (1).  It could be wheat, dairy, corn, soy, oranges, or other foods.  In these cases, they are associated with allergy or intolerance in the individual.

A gluten-free, casein-free (dairy-free), soy-free, and allergen-free diet (specific to the individual’s BioIndividual Nutrition needs) is often a great place to start with dietary changes.


Have you been to a toddler’s birthday party and watch (almost in unison) as the kids come down from the “sugar high” and the crying ensues? When they consume excess sugar, one result is poor behavior, mood changes, and yes, even aggression!

Maybe you have experienced this yourself, indulging in a sugary treat only to become short tempered or irritable after. Our children (especially those who are nonverbal and cannot explain what they are feeling) can react even more drastically. 

Sugar itself can cause aggression. Research shows that high sugar intake and high fructose corn syrup increases the risk of aggression, as well as ADHD (2). 

Also, the after effects of sugar can cause low blood sugar levels which have also been shown to cause aggression. (3)

So sugar can cause aggression by two mechanisms, the sugar itself and the aftermath of the low blood sugar levels it can cause. 

Reducing refined sugars can be a simple way to support stable blood sugar and mood. I have many resources on my site related to lower-sugar treat options and even recipes with lower sugar or using alternative sweeteners like dates, stevia, or honey.

Phenols and Salicylates

In my one-on-one nutrition practice, I’ve found that phenols, salicylates, and amines are the foods that are (by far) the greatest instigators of aggressive behavior.

Artificial food additives such as artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives are phenol compounds that can trigger irritability, sleeping problems, ADHD, hyperactivity and aggression.  Food additives are a well-known cause of aggression—Dr. Ben Feingold and others have been studying this and publishing papers for decades. Dr. Feingold stated in his paper, “Dietary Management of Juvenile Delinquency” that he had 60-70% success with an additive-free diet “for control of behavior.”

In addition to “artificial phenols” there are “natural phenols” in the form called salicylates.  Salicylates have a phenolic structure, or aromatic chemical ring, that occur naturally in fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs and spices, and other plant foods.  These foods are rich in wonderful nutrients, but if your body has trouble “detoxifying” the salicylates, they can be a big problem for a child causing significant aggression, hyperactivity, and many other symptoms.

High Salicylate Foods

  • Grapes
  • Apples
  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Melons
  • Tomato sauce and ketchup
  • Oranges
  • Honey
  • Almonds
  • Herbs and Spices: Cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, rosemary and more

One of my client’s children, a boy 10 years old, had daily aggression toward his family and therapists.  It would happen dozens of times per day, seemingly out of the blue.  People were getting hurt and it was a scary situation for everyone involved.  I suspected salicylates as the culprit, and after a dietary trial removing them, his aggression virtually disappeared—it went from 50 times per day to one time a month (and likely that was an accidental exposure)!

Amines and Glutamates

Amines are a different natural food chemical that is processed by the same detoxification pathway, and therefore, often create similar reactions, and people with salicylate sensitivity are more likely to have amine or glutamate intolerance.  Amines and glutamates are found in fermented foods including sauerkraut and yogurt, salami, smoked meats and fish, bacon, canned fish, and broths.  Sometimes I find it is amines, not salicylates, that is the main culprit.

Glutamate, also comes in the additive-form of MSG (monosodium glutamate).  One client I worked with was a teenager—he was very aggressive and only wanted to eat certain things.  When I looked to see what they all had in common, it was MSG as an ingredient. For him, removing both MSG and a food sensitivity made a huge improvement and his aggression diminished dramatically.

For children with aggression, I always explore the possible role of salicylates, amines, and glutamates for causing or contributing to the reaction, as I have seen many times in my practice that removing these foods reduces aggression for those that don’t tolerate them.

Nutrient Deficiencies

Before we wrap up this conversation about food and aggression, let’s discuss how not only food reactions can cause aggression, but nutrient deficiencies as well.

Nutrients are important for building neurotransmitters, as well as hundreds, if not, thousands of functions in the body and brain. And certain deficiencies have been associated with aggression.

Serotonin is the feel good brain chemical that when in low supply not only can cause depression but aggression as well. The amino acid tryptophan converts to serotonin, and low levels of tryptophan are associated with aggression in rat-mouse studies (4). 

Also, vitamin B6, zinc, magnesium, and iron are all important for the production of serotonin – and all of these vitamins and minerals have been showing in studies to cause aggression when low.

Lithium is another important mineral. A well known study showed how areas with little to no lithium in their drinking water had significantly higher rates of violent crime than those with more adequate levels. (5) contains lithium (in low doses) is beneficial. And I’ve heard Dr. James Greenblatt speak on the benefits of low dose lithium at the Integrative Medicine for Mental Health conference and the benefits are quite amazing. (6)

There are more nutrients as well that can be helpful with aggression such as vitamins B1, B3, B5, niacin, and vitamin C. 

A healthy nutrient dense diet and a multivitamin/mineral formula can help supply the nutrients we need for many everyday functions, including more stable mood. 

World of Difference

Aggression can have so many various causes, and food is not the cause for everyone. However, what is clear is that if foods are triggering aggression for a child, removal of those foods can make a world of difference in decreasing aggression, and huge improvements in the quality of everyone’s life.

Further Resources

For more on common reactions and symptoms from these foods, when and how to implement these special diets, lists of foods containing salicylates, amines, and glutamates,  and how to create a personalized nutrition plan for your child, check out my nutrition program for parents, Nourishing Hope for Healing Kids.  


Julie Matthews is a Certified Nutrition Consultant who received her master’s degree in medical nutrition with distinction from Arizona State University. She is also a published nutrition researcher and has specialized in complex neurological conditions, particularly autism spectrum disorders and ADHD for over 20 years. Julie is the award winning author of Nourishing Hope for Autism, co-author of a study proving the efficacy of nutrition and dietary intervention for autism published in the peer-reviewed journal, Nutrients, and also the founder of BioIndividualNutrition.com. Download her free guide, 12 Nutrition Steps to Better Health, Learning, and Behavior.


  1. I am realising how foods affect me, had grapes this evening and within short period felt so angry, same with milk chocolate, felt so angry, I have Aspergers my son craves grapes, tomato sauce and I know certain foods he reacts to problem is how to solve this we are vegetarian, and fruit is biggest thing I can get my lil one to eat most things he won’t but similar with me, I love fruit but am beginning to see a connection between certain foods and feeling so angry I hate feeling cross or angry, and I don’t like the liability of mood we encounter in my home, my son is also on spectrum, we did do a food elimination fructose for my son and he started falling asleep everywhere but they refused to do the breathe test so I will never know if it was fructose related or not

  2. I am here because my three year old has had intense aggression. He bites, hits, scratches, and throws things. We have talked to our pediatrician and had him tested for autism. He doesn’t have it or any mood disorder. He went to the neurologist and his MRI was fine. I have tried making sure he has a set schedule, enough activity, less screen time. Nothing has made a noticeable difference. I have felt like I failed him and that I am not a good Mom. I am going to do this diet elimination.I have hope that it will help. Thank you for this information.

  3. Please look at the RPHA elimination diet and the fedup website. It’s offers a step-by-step guide to eliminating food chemicals and organised reintroduction. Gluten and dairy elimination are optional and there is extensive information and suitable recipes. It is Australian based, but there are people from around the world using it and getting results.

  4. Just in time. I have and love your books & DVD. Diet is so important for my kiddo. Thank you so much, Julie!

    • Thanks Angi! I’m so glad diet is so helpful to your child and that my resources have been helpful. Stay in touch!

  5. Hi,My child is about to turn 5 and has just started school. I wouldn’t say he is a perfect child but he tries hard and is happy and co-operative most of the time. Anyway his teacher has noticed the last couple of days he has exhibited alot of misbehaviour. I am thinking 1 of 2 things, he is either tired or recently he has had honey in the mornings on toast. He has never had honey before but I wonder whether the latter, the honey could be a contributing factor. It is the only change that he has had.

  6. Hi I am a mom of a 18yr old boy. He spits all day long and had meltdowns. I have him on a low carb diet right now. I has dark spots in certain places on his body. He is know verbal. He has seizures and is on med for that and to try to calm him. I never had him on meds till he had his first seizure at the age of 7yrs old. I need some help I do not want to put him away. That is not the answer. Please help

    • There is a clinical nutritionist named Dr. Donna Smith… Look up Advanced Clinical Nutrition. It is quite possible insurance won’t cover her services, but I have never regretted the money I’ve paid for her help. She is helping to restore the health of my 11 yr old , who by all rights, was raised well and should have been well, but mysteriously was becoming aggressive, very anxious and depressive. Right now, after 1 month of therapy, my daughter is becoming the sweet, bright, well-mannered child we only saw in glimmers before and she’s got a healthy sparkle back in her eye. I can’t say enough about this online, testing-based clinic. I feel like Dr. Smith is saving my daughter’s life, after more than 3 years of other doctors telling me “she has nothing wrong with her.”

    • Hi Carmen, my wife suffered with seizures and was diagnosed with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. We eventually found out she had a Leaky Gut (Intestinal Permeability) and the triggers for the seizures were MSG and all forms of Dairy – milk, cheese, creme fraiche, yogurt etc. She’s been seizure free for two years now – no meds!!! If we don’t cook it / make it from scratch we don’t eat it, no additives, flavourings. We kept a food diary, seizures would occur up to 48 hrs after ingestion of triggers until they were cleared from the system.

  7. Hi. I am going through meltdowns and my so. Will be 18 he spits all the time. Who doi turn to he destroys furniture. And I am in a desperate situation. The doc just want to Medicaid him. He already takes med for seizures and I do not want to put him away. Please help someone . God bless from a desperate mom.

  8. Josie… did you ever figure out where to start. My suggestion would be milk.

    Also where do we go to have our children’s neurotransmitters tested?

  9. Hi I too need help please with my son- to cut a long story short- very placid content baby but around 7 weeks old started with screaming fits which I suspected were colic, however GP told me there was no such thing. From around ten months old tantrums escalated and he also suffered a lot with hives and many other skin rashes. Over the years we’ve had ups and downs but at the moment his aggression is at a high (he is now 8) and lashes out with temper for no apparent reason at school. Seen a paediatrician- no diagnosis they believe no adhd or autism or anything else. I suspect it is food related but don’t know where to go..he was tested for coeliac at 2 but negative. He is a very very lean child, always hungry, often complaining of headaches and tummy aches. Where so I start taking things out of his diet? thank you

  10. Hi Julie

    I need some help please – like many other parents I am being ignored by my GP (UK) We have a lovely 5 year old who is very loving and considerate and at the right level at school etc, but he has started exploding but no reason that we can see !!. he has very dry rough skin which we have been given diprobase for and he diet is pretty healthy in terms of veg with meals etc. We are really falling apart as a family as we are lost ! I dont believe he knows or intends to be this awful so i try to cuddle him trhough which somethimes works and sometimes doesnt as he wants to hit me. I have 3 days ago removed dairy and im guessing i wont see immediate results but my head is spinning from all the things it could be i just need to know how to start and what i should be looking for . Someone above mentioned they had their childs neurotransmitters checked how and why would I go about this. sorry for the long question but we are struggling at the moment. thank you ps i have just ordered Digest Spectrum to see if this can help – have you tried digestive enzymes in your work ?

    • Hi – I am disappointed for you that you haven’t had a reply. I’m in the UK too. I began experimenting with my own diet because of chronic illness, my 7 year old was keen to join me (maybe that’s why I am always tired mum). We started by cutting out wheat and then sugar including fruit. As I started to see links between food and my daughter’s behaviour and my own health, I did more research and decided to cut out all processed food, all grains. I then followed a Whole30 program http://whole30.com/whole30-program-rules/ and without realising it, we became a ‘paleo’ family! I then switched to The Paleo Approach – autoimmune protocol. http://www.thepaleomom.com/autoimmunity/the-autoimmune-protocol

      My daughter changed into her real self. Her mood lightened, her emotions stabilised, her aggression went completely. Her eczema disappeared, her skin brightened. She stopped feeling an urgent need to urinate. She slept better and woke free from aches and pains. My 3 year old stopped getting diarrhoea, her eczema cleared up and hasn’t needed any asthma meds for months. I am excited to see if this trend continues through the winter when she is usually very poorly.

      Recently my 7 year old has had a bit of a decline. We have had a few incidents with rage which (unless a coincidence) I can link to nitrates (gammon), raisins, tomatoes. I am now looking into the possibility of a salicylate sensitivity. I have an appointment with GP to get a referral to a nutritionist (if I’m taken seriously!)The first appointment I could get is Sept 1st so in the meantime I am cutting out the highest sources of salicylates – fruit, herbs, spices (all of which I have increased my use of lately). I have already stopped using most household cleaners etc but do have some bathroom cleaner left which contains salicylates. So for now I will use bicarb. We use bicarb to wash hair, wash clothes and i am going to try it in the dishwasher too!

      It is overwhelming – I feel for you! All I can say is making such big changes is hard, but not as hard as watching your child suffer.

      I encourage you to give it a try.

      BTW – I don’t use any creams the doctors prescribe. They
      are all petroleum based which seems crazy to me. Coconut oil is wonderful. Raw untreated organic. Expensive but goes a long way!



  11. My son is 9 yo very recently we checked his neurotransmitters because He was very aggressive.
    the glutamate,glycine,dopaminephrine,epinephirine are super elevated and super low cortisol. We started a diet free of glutamate and is helping his tramtums went from 12 times a day to 1 or 2 my question is if he is sensitive to glutamate is necessarily sensitive to salicylates and the igg test would help me to know what would be the correct diet.
    Thank you!!!

  12. My son is 9yo a week ago I checked his neurotrasmitters because He was super aggressive He has super high leves of glutamate, glycine dopamine norepinephrine epinephirine and low cortisol. We put him on free glutamate diet very strict diet, He was allready gf cf.
    He went from 10 times daily episodies to 1 so far.
    My question is Kids with glutamate problems are also salicylates sensitives.
    The Igg help to see if We need to take salicylates out of the diet.
    Thank you!!!

  13. one of my parents gave her autistic child carmeal milk and goat milk the boy is not agressive now days
    fred obimbo

  14. Wow thank you! We need more awareness of this! My young son was very aggressive to everyone, family and friends alike. We recently started the Feingold Program (feingold.org) and his aggression has completely disappeared. Most of his ADHD and ODD behaviors are GONE! No other changes other than his diet. It’s like an on/off switch. It has really saved our family!

  15. My son had temper tantrums from the time he was an infant and they just got worse as he got older, sometimes lasting up to 2 hours when he was finally so exhausted he couldn’t continue. I had to restrain him for the duration or he would injure himself, me, or destroy things. By the time he was 6, I was beside myself and didn’t know where to turn. Friends were sympathetic but just thought he was a “strong willed child.” I was suspecting there was something really wrong with my child but, of course, was trying to avoid coming to this conclusion. When he was six, I diagnosed myself with gluten sensitivity and read about gluten’s affect on children and behavior. Knowing that gluten sensitivity is hereditary, I had him tested with a stool test through Dr. Kenneth Fine’s Institute for Intestinal Health in Dallas (which I highly recommend, http://www.enterolab.com)and it was positive for gluten antibodies. I took him off of gluten and he never had another temper tantrum. He became a happy and loving child and I was finally able to enjoy being his mother. I suspect that if I had not removed gluten from his diet, he would have eventually been diagnosed with a behavior disorder and put on medication. It breaks my heart to know that so many other children have this same sensitivity but no one knows and they go through life with a label and dependent on drugs when a simple diet change would change their lives. I tell everyone about my experience with my son. Unfortunately, most do not listen. They either don’t want to change their lifestyle to accommodate a diet change or they just can’t believe that a common food could cause such extreme behavior. I couldn’t believe it either but I lived it, so I had no choice but to believe it.

  16. I get so discourages when I read information such as the above. Now we may need to take fruit out of our child’s diet?? He is already on a GF/CF diet and it is so very difficult (and expensive!) to find any foods that he likes that don’t have some sweetener or concentrate or additives. We have to hide veggies in sauces or casseroles. He cannot be reasoned with and will even go without dessert to avoid many foods.
    I am surprised that such a delicious, natural, healthy food such as fruit can be such a detriment to a child’s health and behavior. One of the main fruits I notice not on the list is bananas, which he will not eat. Between the phenols and salicylates AND the amines and glutamates, I don’t know what all is left for us to feed him that he will eat!
    I understand that these suggested triggers have to be eliminated one at a time to find out which may be affecting behavior, but is there a list of “acceptable food” for my child to subsist on while we are removing these others from his diet? Our child is not aggressive, but extremely hyperactive.

    • Hi Susie. Sorry to hear you are discouraged. These may or may not be an issue for your son. You are correct, they are very healthy foods so if they are not causing problems there is no benefit in limiting them. The key is to find out. If they are, parents often find the restriction worth it. The lowest salicylate fruits are fairly limited: peeled pears, peeled golden delicious apples (the yellow apples), and mango. But there are lots of healthy foods to eat.

      • You mention that there are a lot of healthy foods to eat besides fruit. The problem is that many autistic children only eat certain foods. If you remove those foods from their diet they will not just start eating other foods. They either won’t eat anything at all or will double up on the foods remaining in their diets. My 13 yr old autistic grandson eats every fruit on the salicylate list every day. He will eat any kind of fruit. He also eats bacon every day, sometimes three times a day. The only other protein he eats is hamburg patties and peanut butter. In addition to fruits, bacon, hamburg, peanut butter, he will eat small amounts of raw celery and carrots, peanut butter and grape jelly on glutin-free bread, honey on glutin-free bread, glutin-free pancakes with syrup, glutin-free cinnamon rolls, orange juice, and dairy-free ice cream. He also eats glutin-free brownies, cake or cookies, and glutin-free pretzels. Every day he eats either bacon or hamburg patties for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus 3 or 4 servings of fruit. It never varies.

  17. My daughter expresses anger after eating pasturized dairy. A friend of ours has a son the same age as our daughter who expresses depression after eating dairy or wheat. Both children have spent substantial time on the GAPS diet. I use Pulsatilla on my daughter and it seems to calm the anger in time.

  18. I also now notice with my son some minor symptoms that he develops prior to an aggressive outburst. Now if he eats too many phenols he develops slightly red and swollen ears. He also gets slightly flushed cheeks. This is how we know to pull back on the diet before the aggression and tantrums develop.

    • Kristi – thank you so much for sharing this! It’s excellent and I appreciate your work. Let’s stay in touch. Julie

  19. My son had terrible aggression and self harming issues as an infant. He would bash his head and bite his tongue open as well as have raging tantrums that were very disturbing. He didn’t sleep and we were beside our selves. We attended a sleep clinic who told us to leave because my son was considered to be a risk to himself. We felt so alone! Removing phenols was amazing for us. We also used Epsom Salt baths and gave him magnesium. The difference is incredible. We are still working on increasing diet but the nightmare of sleeplessness and self harming has finally stopped.

    • Meredith, when I hear how alone and “abandoned by the system” you were, it makes me frustrated. When others didn’t know what to do, they ignore it… and children and families suffer. Thank goodness you kept searching and found a solution that helped your son so dramatically. I feel it is my mission to legitimize food and nutrition in the eyes of healthcare. Your situation is the perfect example – something so simple as food offered such profound results for you. Thanks for sharing so other families can see the power that food (adding or removing) can offer. All the best to you, Julie.


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