Mental Health

How Nutrition Influences Kids’ Mental Health

A young man eating health food a table with friends.

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“Let thy food be thy medicine,” Hippocrates famously declared. And the proverb applies to our mental health as well. The benefits of healthy nutrition reach far beyond physical appearance, especially when it comes to our children and their developing minds. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), children who eat healthfully are likely to:

  • Feel good about themselves, their bodies and their abilities
  • Cope with stress in a healthy way
  • Regulate their emotions better
  • Have improved self-esteem

Eating healthy foods as a way of life can also help prevent chronic illnesses that could come later in life, like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, while protecting against common childhood illnesses.

Of course, it can be challenging as parents to find ways to incorporate healthy foods into your kids’ meals. We’re here to help families find techniques to make healthy choices and behaviors a little easier in our busy world.

Keep reading for ways to positively impact your child’s mental health through small but powerful nutritional changes.

Meal Plan as a Family and Have Fun

Before you head to the grocery store, take a few minutes each week to sit down with your family and brainstorm some healthy meals.

Siblings and older kids love a good competition. Make it a game to see who can drink more water or eat more fruits, vegetables and whole foods throughout the day.

Start With What’s Familiar

In your meal planning brainstorming sessions, your kids may put in a pitch for the familiar, like mac and cheese or pizza. But starting with meals like these can be helpful. When you’re introducing kids to new foods, it’s best to take it slowly by tweaking what they already like to make it healthier.

Whole-wheat macaroni with a vegan “cheese” sauce made with cauliflower or thin-crust pizza with a veggie crust are small but influential steps on the path to healthier eating. Also, when kids help pick the meals, they’re more likely to try new foods, even the healthiest ones.

As healthy eating becomes the norm, incorporate educating your children on the connection between good nutrition and how it makes us feel. You can even make flashcards for younger kids.

Prepare Food Together

If kids are involved in planning and buying food, it only makes sense for them to start learning about how it’s made. Cooking also provides opportunities to show children how food is grown. Starting a garden or even growing a small herb in a pot to put in a dish can spark a child’s interest.

It’s also helpful to have prepped veggies and fruits ready to pull out of the fridge and give to hungry tummies when you get home from work or school. Then you won’t be as likely to revert to old unhealthier habits if the work’s already done for you.

Think About Habits, Not Diets

Ultimately, the goal is to make healthy nutrition a habit, like brushing your teeth. There’s no one path that works to get there.

A growing amount of evidence shows a connection between eating patterns, mood and overall mental health. Mediterranean diet patterns may have positive effects on mood and stress-related disorders. Daily intake of a variety of foods including legumes, fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains, nuts and seeds should be included.

In general, shop for these foods:

  • Fruit
  • Healthy protein
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains

And try to stay away from:

  • Butter, potatoes and high-fat gravy
  • High-fat dairy products
  • Processed foods
  • Red and/or processed meat
  • Refined grains (non-whole grains that are missing one or more key parts of the grain, like white flour and white rice)
  • Sweets and desserts

These foods aren’t harmful in and of themselves or eaten every now and then. But a diet centered around them can be, so try to help your children adopt healthy habits early on.

Words Matter

Talking about weight and healthy eating can be challenging. Thinking ahead of time about the words you’ll use can mean the difference between an optimistic discussion about achieving health and a negatively focused talk about weight. The words you use now will matter a lot to your child’s mental health now and in the future.

Here are three words and concepts that are best avoided:

  1. Weight: In general, it’s best to talk about eating in terms of health, not weight. Weight can add negative emotions like shame, which can make kids and teens retreat into unhealthy habits or even develop an eating disorder.
  2. Diet: When nutritionists and doctors talk about a diet, they usually mean the kinds of foods a person usually eats as part of their lifestyle. But many people talk about diets in terms of foods to avoid simply to lose weight or help treat or avoid certain diseases. Restrictive diets are difficult to maintain over time. It’s better to talk about the health goals children should aim for and carry with them in their lives.
  3. Restriction: Children respond better to positive reinforcement rather than rules about what they “can’t eat.” If you substitute unhealthy foods with healthier options — like fruit-infused water instead of soda — the “can’t” foods will naturally phase out.

Poor Nutrition: Effects on Mental Health

It’s important to know that while good nutrition has positive effects on mental health, poor nutrition does just the opposite — and the impact can be profound. Notice behavior changes in your child following a high-sugar or high-carb meal. With consistent poor eating habits over time, you might notice signs that could put your child at high risk for developing mental health disorders.

Signs in young children include:

  • Frequent tantrums
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Stomachaches
  • Difficulty sitting still
  • Sleep problems
  • Trouble making friends

Older children and adolescents may show signs such as:

  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Poor performance in school
  • Low energy
  • Sleep problems
  • Spending more time alone
  • Self-harm
  • Substance abuse
  • Risky behavior
  • Thoughts of suicide

Health consequences of mental health disorders include:

  • Depression: Increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, pain, Alzheimer's disease and osteoporosis
  • Chronic mental illness: Chronic pain, gastrointestinal distress and obesity
  • Severe mental illness: Increased risk of respiratory disease, liver disease and cardiovascular disease

The Path to Wholeness Begins With a Choice

It might seem like the easier path to make food choices based on convenience in our busy lives but taking that route can have negative consequences on our children’s whole health. Awareness is the first step toward making healthy changes to your child’s nutrition. Feeding their tummies with nutritious food and knowing that it feeds their mind, too, can only be good.

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