Awhile back, someone following my Instagram @faithhopefood asked for a sort of guide to help her make food choices that would benefit the mental health of her children. I thought it was such a great idea, so here we go!
If you’ve been with me for a while, you’ve read about the basics of how what we eat impacts our mental health. More and more, research is showing that symptoms like depression, anxiety, bipolar mood disorders, trouble with focus, attention and cognition are just that – symptoms of bigger, more systemic problems rather than stand-alone diseases like was previously taught. Getting to the bottom of your (and your child’s) mental health problems needs to involve attention to three facets of human life – mind, body and spirit. In the field of psychotherapy, attention to mind and spirit is well-established and common. Unfortunately, however, attention to our physical health as it affects mental health has been largely neglected. Thankfully, a shift is happening, and more and more counselors, psychologists and even psychiatrists are becoming qualified to address mental health problems using nutrition and integrative medicine.
If you haven’t read past posts regarding how food impacts our mood, or how gut health is related to mental health, or how you can take steps to heal your gut, I recommend going back and reading those so that you can have a basic foundation for this conversation. In general, healthy choices for our children aren’t going to be much different than healthy choices for ourselves. Then we can discuss how we apply this knowledge to benefit the tiniest members of our families.
We don’t know what baseline mood is in a person until he is eating foods that benefit his body instead of foods that damage it.
First things first. If your child is showing signs of mental health disorders, such as depressed mood, low energy, excessive fatigue, pervasive negative self-talk, anxiety, trouble sleeping or waking in the morning, difficulty completing a task or conversation, panic, anger or defiance, trouble in social relationships or just a general lack of joy and peace, clean up his diet and health habits! It is impossible for a practitioner to know what is “normal” for your child if he is not eating in a way that heals and benefits his body rather than slowly destroying it. And unfortunately in the paradigm of traditional allopathic medicine and child psychiatry, medication is all too often prescribed to “solve” the problem. The issue here is that these medications haven’t been proven to solve anything, and they all come with a host of side effects that often make the initial symptoms worse or create new problematic symptoms. It’s a mess trying to properly medicate a growing child, whose body and mind is in a constant state of flux and change. Even before my training in nutrition and integrative medicine, I was reluctant to recommend medications for children, because they just aren’t “done” developing yet. There’s too much risk.
Before jumping to a lifelong diagnosis of your child, be sure the following is true of his routine:
- Your child is getting a solid night’s sleep. That means an average of around 10 hours a night, uninterrupted. If they are having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, something is wrong. Adjusting nutrition can help, as well as creating a sleep routine that let’s your child know it’s time to wind down. Limiting screen time during the day and stopping it altogether at least 2hrs before bedtime is advisable, and definitely take any screens out of the bedroom.
- Your child is drinking enough water. Follow the basic recommendation of 1/2 their body weight in ounces. So I try to make sure my 40lb four-year-old drinks 20 ounces of water a day. A dehydtrated body cannot function properly. Choose water first.
- Your child is eating regularly, preferably every four hours or so. Constant fueling of the body is important to a stable mood. Kids get “hangry”, too.
- Your child is eating protein at every meal, and ideally with every snack. Protein comes from meat, poultry, fish, beans, quinoa, cheese, milk, eggs, and nuts. Don’t neglect animal proteins for your child; they are the only natural source of vitamin B12, which is essential for a healthy mood.
- Your child is eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. You’ve heard the saying, “eat the colors of the rainbow”. That is because those colors contain necessary antioxidants and phytochemicals that make our brains work properly. If your child is picky about veggies, I suggest smoothies! Mine will destroy any smoothie I give them, packed full of healthy, brain-boosting nutrients.
- Your child is eating healthy fats. Olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, avocados, grass-fed butter, sugarless nut butter (almond, peanut, etc). These fats provide the brain with the fuel it needs to function properly. Cooking oils like canola oil, vegetable oil, soybean oil (found in lots of shelf-stable salad dressing) are modified to be that way and the body can’t process them like normal fat, so they become toxic and inflammatory.
- Your child is not eating sugar. This means refined carbohydrates, pre-packaged cereal, crackers, juices and fruit snacks. These things provide very little nutrition and create blood sugar spikes and crashes, which manifest like chronic behavior problems. Stevia and monkfruit are good alternative sweeteners, and you can use maple syrup and date syrup in homemade baked goods as well.
- Your child is being active, preferably outdoors. Physical activity and vitamin D play a significant roll in the development of healthy neurotransmitters regulating everything from mood to sleep. Our traditional school set-up deprives our kids of outdoor time and has them being sedentary for too long starting very young. Our kids need to move! Sometimes this means letting my boys wrestle like animals all over the furniture when the weather is bad, but the benefits to their health is worth the snot stains and rips on the couches.
I know that this can seem overwhelming, especially when you have multiple children. I’d suggest starting with one thing. Start replacing your kid’s snacks with healthy choices like Kids Rx Bars or HappyKid snack bars, dried fruit, nuts and cheese combos. Then maybe work on prepping your own freezer waffles made with healthy flours and fats to replace the Eggos that are so quick to make every morning. We like the Blender Freezer Waffles from Trim Healthy Table. Experiment with smoothie recipes to find one or two your kids enjoy. My kids are big fans of the Gut Healer Smoothie. I make a huge one and we all share it for breakfast.
Believe it or not, your child can have a messed up gut microbiome, too. Medications like Tylenol and antihistamines disrupt healthy gut flora and cause nutrient deficiencies, thus disrupting the body’s ability to convert and use food properly, which means impaired neurotransmitter and hormone development among other things. My youngest was on a steady stream of ibuprofen, acetaminophen, antibiotics and antihistamines for almost 2 years because that’s what his pediatrician recommended for teething pain and associated ear infections. It wasn’t until I started learning about gut health that I realized his disgusting poops were most likely associated with an unbalanced microbiome. Now we are slowly working on healing his gut, and there is improvement!
This can be a slow process, so have patience and grace with yourself and your child. It’s worth it to rule out poor nutrition as the cause of mental health problems. Imagine the freedom you would all experience if the chronic anxiety your children feel is a result of poor sleep or hypoglycemia, for example. I hear so many stories of children diagnosed with depression, anxiety, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder or put on the Autism Spectrum, and families aren’t given much (if any) hope that things could be meaningfully different for their children without lifelong use of pharmaceuticals. Well, that’s not the whole story, folks. God provides for our needs – all of our needs – and the way we eat is a huge piece of the puzzle.
And I’ll say this one last thing – the more you as a parent understand about using food to benefit your overall health and well-being, the more willing you will be to make changes for your whole family. It won’t feel like such a battle if you are all eating this way together, talking about the ways eating well helps you feel your best. Getting over our own food issues is very important if we want to impart healthy habits to our children.
Pacholok, S.R.S., Jeffery, DO. (2011). Could it be B12? (Second ed.). South Mary, Fresno, CA: Quill Driver Books.