Improving Children’s Mental Health With Diet
In today’s modern world, with all the stressors and challenges it can bring, looking after our mental health has never been more important. Mental Health is an area of health that encompasses the overall wellness of how we regulate our feelings, our emotional wellbeing and how we behave and think. When any of these are not balanced and a disturbance of mental functioning occurs, especially over a prolonged period of time, our mental wellbeing can suffer.
People can struggle with their mental health at any age, but worryingly, children’s mental health problems are shown to be increasing in prevalence. According to the NHS, in the last three years, the likelihood of young people having a mental health problem has increased by 50%, with 1 in 6 children age 5-16 years of age now likely to have a mental health problem.
In support of Children’s Mental Health Week (6th-12th February), what better time to focus on this important topic. So let’s review what small dietary changes and behaviours can be made to help improve the mental health of children.
As stated by the mental health foundation, ‘What we eat and drink affects how we feel, think and behave’ so if children are lacking in certain vital nutrients or compounds from essential food groups, their mood and mental health can suffer greatly, not to mention their physical health too. A good quality diet is therefore essential for good mental health and should contain a variety of fresh foods in a range of colours. A lot of research has consistently shown the relationship between poor quality diet in children and increased mental health issues. Poor diets are those that are high in processed foods, sugar, chemicals & preservatives, salt, caffeine, saturated fats and lacking in fresh fruit and vegetables.
If diets are poor in the early years of a child’s development, research has shown there is more susceptibility to mental health issues later in life. In fact the mental health outcome of children has even shown to start before birth, because the diet of the mother during pregnancy has also shown to significantly impact the child’s future mental health status.
If anxiety, restlessness, low mood / depression and irritability are key features in your child, it may be time to up the magnesium in their diet. Magnesium is a mineral involved in over 300 biochemical activities in the human body, yet it is also one of the most common mineral deficiencies in the UK. It’s deficiency in children can show itself in these key features named above, in fact low intake of magnesium in the diet has also been associated with certain behavioural problems in children such as aggression and attention issues. Research has shown that many children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) have low magnesium levels. Feelings of panic, fear and generalised anxiety have also been shown to significantly reduce with increased magnesium intake.
Ensuring children have a diet containing foods that are rich in magnesium is therefore vital. Foods that many children will eat that are high in magnesium include, bananas, nuts (including peanut butter), avocado (easily disguised in a sandwich or used as a butter/spread replacement), wholegrain breads and cereals, pulses (easily added to casseroles or soups) and milk. Goats’ milk is an excellent source of magnesium and is also of a form that is better absorbed and utilised by the body compared to magnesium found in cows’ milk. So milk based sauces, a cup of milky cocoa or a milkshake made with Delamere Dairy goats’ milk will not only be delicious, but provide a good magnesium boost too.
Fruit & Vegetables
It may sound obvious, but even knowing that we should be ensuring a good range of fruit and vegetables in the diet, isn’t always enough to make sure they are actually eaten. We know that people, including children, who eat a diet rich in fruit and vegetables are less likely to suffer with anxiety, depression and stress. Although it can be a challenge to get some children to eat certain fruit and vegetables, persistence is
key here. Getting your children involved in the cooking process can really help them become more familiar with foods and the earlier this can be done the better. Research shows that a child needs to see a new food at least 10-12 times before they feel comfortable with it. If they are old enough, ask them to look for a recipe they may like to cook, this helps children to get more excited about food and by doing so can help them learn about the importance of it to their health as well.
Don’t make the mistake of only giving your children what you know they will eat, as variety of fresh fruit and vegetables is important, as each one and all the different colours provide important nutrients that help support mental health. Persist in putting different things on their plate so that hopefully one day they will decide to just try it (yes it does happen!!). There are many ways of disguising fruit and vegetable too, so making a milkshake loaded with berries, mango and bananas for example, or a pasta sauce made from a range of roasted and then liquidised vegetables, is at least a start in getting children to consume more of the good stuff in a way they will eat it.
Fish or Flaxseeds
Unfortunately as a nation, there are a lot of people who don’t like fish and if you are a parent that doesn’t like fish, you are unlikely to be buying it, which means your children won’t be eating it either. Fish, specifically oily fish, contains the all-important omega 3 fatty acids that are essential for overall good health and is very important for mental health. Yet people in the UK and USA have some of the lowest omega-3 levels in the world, meaning many of us, including our children, are not consuming enough by a long way! This low intake of omega 3s, puts us and our children at risk of many chronic diseases, not to mention potential impaired mental health. Lower intake of omega 3 fatty acids has been linked with higher incidence of depression, concentration difficulties and poorer sleep quality, the latter of which is directly linked with poorer mental health. Low omega 3 fatty acid levels in children, has also been linked to a potential increased risk of them developing ADHD.
So adding oily fish to your children’s menu (salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring) twice a week, will really help them get the levels they need of omega 3 fatty Acids. If fish is not going to be palatable in any form, then finding a way to add flax seeds or walnuts to their diet will also help provide a good source of omega 3 fatty acids to both boost brain power and support mental health.
Stop the Processed Foods….gradually
In adolescents who have got use to eating processed foods, it is far harder to implement a change to their diet, however it is never too late to try. Whoever is the main cook in the household, has the ability to change how and what they cook and serve to their children, however old they are. As we know, children can of course be resistant to change, so don’t change the menu or foods all at once, phase some of the new things in over a few weeks. Focus on adding the fresh foods discussed above into their diet and reduce the processed things that are brought on a shopping trip. If they are not in the cupboard to start with they cannot be reached for, and other healthier options will have to become their new normal.
YOU Make the Choices
You should not be in a situation where you are having to cater for different snacks and meals to suit individual children’s preference (unless there is a medical or health reason for doing so), as by doing this you will soon make a rod for your own back and that will make life far more difficult as your children age.
For example, start buying wholegrain breads, pastas and cereals as opposed to white refined carbohydrates, do not give them a choice in this, just do it.
You cannot expect children and adolescents to make correct food choices without proper guidance, the sooner this starts the better and easier it is for you. It is not a case of stopping all treats, it is a case of serving a variety of fresh home cooked meals abundant in the good stuff and having a few treats on the side, as opposed to the other way around. When looking after children’s mental health in relation to what you feed them, it may be a case of having to be cruel to be kind, but this means their mental and physical health will reap the rewards of this as they age.
- Relationship Between Diet and Mental Health in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review, 2014. American Journal of Public Health
- Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2020. NHS Digital
- Low dietary intake of magnesium is associated with increased externalising behaviours in adolescents, 2015. Public Health Nutrition
- Pharmacological Reports, 2013. Magnesium in depression
- The role of diet and nutrition on mental health and wellbeing, 2017. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society
- Mineral and vitamin content of goat’s milk, 1984. Journal of the American Dietetic Association
- Cross-sectional associations of schoolchildren’s fruit and vegetable consumption, and meal choices, with their mental well-being: a cross-sectional study. 2021. BMJ, Nutrition, Prevention & Health
- Annals of Neurology, 2013. Mediterranean diet, stroke, cognitive impairment, and depression: A Meta-analysis