As we discuss brain health, mood, and nutrition, we would be remiss to ignore how these issues can play out in childhood. The impacts from the standard American diet and lifestyle are showing up earlier and earlier in life. Children suffer from a number of health related issues, such as Early-Onset Diabetes, Autoimmune Disorders, Autism, ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder), depression and anxiety. While these are all multifaceted issues, meaning there are likely to be multiple causes and factors involved, nutrition and diet have been shown to play a significant role in reducing symptoms and in some cases, bringing children into full remission from a diagnosis.
No matter if your child is following a traditional route to treat symptoms related to mood, attention, behavior, or chronic health conditions, adjusting a child’s diet for optimal health will always serve to support their progress. There is a significant relationship between the food we eat and the way we feel. Children are not an exception to this relationship. And they may even be more susceptible since their brains are still growing and developing.
Healthy diet is about increasing nutrients and providing the body with all that it needs to function. While increasing nutrients in the diet, we also let go of foods that are less optimal, inflammatory, or anti-nutrient (meaning they actually take away essential nutrients from the body). The human body, and brain, require a full spectrum of macronutrients (protein, healthy fat, complex carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants). The very best way to get these essentials is through the food that we eat. Educating children on the basics of what their bodies and minds need to grow and feel good is foundational for supporting their ability to make sound decisions for themselves in the future.
It may at times feel like an impossible task to change a child’s diet, or even talk about nutrition with children. But with small changes over time, where favorite foods that may need to go, are replaced with delicious nutrient dense substitutes, your child will develop healthier habits and increased nutrition. Part of that process, which is slow, can be the learning about how one’s body, mood, or experiences change as a result of what was eaten. Children, as do all of us, learn through experience, and adults bringing awareness to these experiences and providing a narrative, set children up for success in the future when they will be making decisions for their own self-care.
For example, after beginning these conversations and making some changes at home, perhaps your child attends a birthday party and wants to enjoy the birthday dessert. It is a learning opportunity to discuss beforehand your child’s choice and possible consequences from eating something with excess sugar, or food coloring, or gluten, or dairy.
You might say to your child, “if you eat that you may feel irritable later, or unable to sit still, or you may get a headache, or tummy ache from this.” Let them make an informed decision and then if they do decide to have the dessert, then you will be there to help them continue narrating the experience through reflection.
We certainly don’t want to judge children with general statements like, “I told you so,” or “you shouldn’t have eaten that.” The only thing children learn from comments like that is to feel ashamed of themselves.
Our objective is to educate. Children learn when they make connections between cause and effect. So if your child chooses to experiment and have the birthday cake and later has a meltdown or negative symptom, then you might state to them, “I notice that you ate the cake and now you are lying on the floor crying and feeling upset,” or “It’s been 30 minutes since you tried the cake and now you are saying you feel sick/have a headache.”
Awareness won’t necessarily come in the moment. Rarely do any of us have the wherewithal to put it all together when we are in the throws of feeling bad. However, your narrating and reflecting, and making connections between what is eaten and how your child feels, builds an understanding in your child that will support them as they get older.
For many of us, we are just learning how food can make us feel good or bad. Certainly we are aware that food tastes good or bad to us, but it takes some mindfulness and investigating to discover that food and beverages also play a significant role in our moods, our focus, our energy levels, our sleep, our hormone health, our skin and hair and many other things. Indeed, the food we eat is the very fuel our brains and bodies use to live. The food choices we make will indicate if we are setting ourselves up to thrive, or not.
Supporting children’s health with nutrition is in large part, educating them and including them in the process of cooking, shopping and creating meals. In addition to that, children need to feel like they belong and are supported in their families. Isolating one child based on an illness, diagnosis, or issue by changing only his or her diet and the rest of the family continuing on as usual will only serve to sabotage that child’s success. While specific family members may have certain food sensitivities or allergies independent of other family members, the family as a whole can create an environment of support by committing to increasing nutrients and decreasing inflammatory items. Our children learn the most from how we role model, and health practices are no different from anything else.
If we tell a child that he needs to eat healthy and avoid sugary, processed foods while we continue to consume them ourselves then we undermine our own message. Children will notice the incongruency and resist or rebel against what is being asked of them. As children, we are hardwired to notice inconsistencies and injustice (It’s not fair!). So in terms of education, our role modeling is the most powerful tool in addition to our observations, reflections, and teaching.
The following are some basic dietary changes that will support overall brain health in all people. For those suffering from mood, attention, and other issues these changes could mean the difference between feeling terrible and feeling good.
1. Increase Omega-3 Fats.
Eat more foods with Omega-3 fat content to support brain functioning. Ideal sources of Omega-3’s are salmon, mackerel, sardines, avocado, walnuts, and extra virgin olive oil.
2. Reduce or eliminate vegetable and seed oils.
Oils like canola, safflower, rapeseed, and peanut, are high in Omega-6 fatty acids. Having too much Omega-6 fatty acids has an inflammatory effect on the brain. Increasing Omega-3 fats while reducing Omega-6’s will help to balance this out. Make a note that most packaged goods and condiments are made with vegetable oils.
3. Increase vegetable intake.
When meal planning, consider including vegetables in every meal and making vegetables the centerpiece of the plate. Learn how to cook vegetables to get the most flavor and experiment with sauces and spices.
4. Use anti-inflammatory superstars.
Incorporate spices like turmeric, cinnamon, and ginger into meals. Simply adding turmeric to scrambled eggs, cinnamon to oatmeal, and ginger to stir-fry dishes will enhance flavor and provide anti-inflammatory properties to meals.
5. Let go of refined and processed foods.
Make a commitment to let go of highly refined packaged foods. Foods that are processed beyond their natural state often come loaded with added ingredients that are anti-nutrient, such as trans fats (hydrogenated oils) and artificial coloring and flavoring. Furthermore, packaged goods almost always have added sugar which is a highly inflammatory ingredient and does interrupt brain metabolic functions.
6. Replace sugar with sweet.
Enjoying whole fruits provide the sweet taste with the essential fiber and vitamins fruits have to offer. Avoid fruit flavors, fruit juices, and fruit drinks as these are only metabolized as sugar and create harmful insulin spikes and drops. Insulin spikes and drops have a direct effect on the functioning of our brains.
Sugar sources on labels include cane sugar, cane syrup, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, maltose, and dextrose. Additionally, check the grams of sugar on your labels. Keep in mind that 4 grams of sugar is equal to a whole sugar packet.
7. Take the time to identify possible trigger foods.
Eliminating foods that are highly problematic for most people and especially problematic for the brain, endocrine and nervous systems can help reduce problematic symptoms. Remove them completely from the diet for at least 3 weeks, then reintroduce one at a time and monitor for flare ups of symptoms.
High trigger foods include gluten (from wheat, rye, and barley), dairy, soy, nuts, seafood, and corn. Many people experience dramatic relief from symptoms by identifying and removing trigger foods from their diets.
8. All-time Avoiders.
These ingredients are for always avoiding. They have shown harmful effects overtime in the research and are highly problematic. These ingredients include:
Overall, enjoy the process of learning. It’s important to be kind when learning new things, and learning new things together with children is really an opportunity to grow together and bond in a new way.
Children will follow your lead if you can bring enthusiasm, creativity, and playfulness to the kitchen and to meal planning. We are always moving and changing, so diets are not things meant to be mastered, but to evolve. Each new insight will bring with it the next level of investigation.
Our relationship to our environment and the food we eat is intimate and personal. The key to getting the most out of the process is staying open and curious. And of course, being patient and kind with the learning.
Francie Healey is the author of "Eat To Beat Alzheimer's and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling and is both a Certified Health Counselor and Licensed Mental Health Counselor.practitioner.