Diet and Mental Health: A Childhood Connection

Diet and Mental Health: A Childhood Connection
As published on October 23, 2015 in Macaroni Kid

Sadness. Anxiety. Anger. Hopelessness. As adults, we are all too familiar with these emotions. What we don’t realize, unfortunately, is that our children are too. The difference? Children do not yet possess the tools to verbalize or process their emotions. These painful, unfamiliar, scary feelings usually manifest in behavioral difficulties which then result in some form of consequences within school, home or your parent-child relationship.pexels-photo-11523-large

Up to 10% of American children suffer with mental illness and twice as many show symptoms of depression. Since the 1980’s the number of children and adolescents on anti-depressant medication has tripled. The prevalence of ADHD diagnosis h
as risen steadily by 5% per year since 2003. I could quote the statistics all day, but the point is that
as a culture, the mental health of our children is steadily declining.

Research shows that there is a direct correlation between our nutrient intake and our brain chemistry – specifically the saturation or depletion of the neurotransmitters which are responsible for our emotions, ability to manage our anger, problem solve as well as our energy and activity levels.

Simply put, if we do not make the necessary nutrients available to the body, we are unable to produce the neurotransmitters we need for a healthy mental state. Shortages
lead to anger, depression, hyperactivity, drug/alcohol cravings and mood swings. Taking that into account, it’s easy to see why these statistics keep rising.

Answer to yourself honestly – no judgments… How many nutrient-dense whole foods does your child eat per day? Don’t worry, you’re not alone in your answer.

40 years ago, children did not have the same access to processed food. Doritos, ice cream and chemical-latent frozen pizzas were not served at school. Parents had more time and accessibility to quality food. Today, it is much more difficult to provide our children with a nutritious diet and give their bodies the delicate balance it needs to function at it’s best.

Many parents have found success with placing their children on medication and I do believe, in some cases, medication is necessary to calm symptoms so that nutrition and lifestyle changes can be implemented and begin to take effect. However, the ultimate goal should be to ween off the medication once your child’s nutritional balance has been restored and symptoms can resolve themselves.

Keeping in mind this strong, undeniable connection between mental health and nutrition, there are several things that you can do to help your child feel better and have a more successful future.

  • Switch to organic, whole foods. Fill your fridge with whole fruits, veggies, meats and unrefined carbohydrates.
  • Go gluten-free. Although, a difficult transition, behavior difficulties and other symptoms respond extremely well to a gluten-free diet.
  • Pack school lunches. Despite governmental efforts, school lunches do not provide our children with what the need and the quality of the food is poor.
  • Engage your child in the process with you. Have them help pick out new healthy foods and be your helper in the kitchen. This will give them a sense of control and confidence.
  • Talk it out. Communication with your child about health and nutrition is important. The more regular of a topic it becomes around the house, the better your child will feel about their health.
  • Clean out the pantry. Get rid of anything that has an ingredient on the label you don’t know what it is. Processed foods and chemicals damage our body and cause inflammation.
  • Educate yourself on nutrition. Knowledge is power and is the key to any successful change.
  • Support your child. Be a good example by taking charge of your own health.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that you are not alone. There are resources available to you and your child. Do your research, talk to your pediatrician and seek the help of a nutrition professional who fully supports and understands the connection between your child’s emotions and their diet.  The best gift you can ever give your child is the gift of health.


Jessica Sullivan, LMSW, SFG, NTP

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