Everyone knows that what a child eats can affect their physical health, but not as many people realize that food choices also impact mental health.
With as much as 20 percent of adolescents having mental health issues each year, it’s up to the parents and adults in kids’ lives to help in any way they can. That includes planning menus that incorporate healthy foods that support mental health and limiting the foods that detract from overall mental health.
Here are some foods to skip and some to add to children’s diets for optimal mental health.
Eat More Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are an important part of any diet, and this nutrient can benefit mood disorders. Those who eat the most fish appear to have lower levels of depression.
Not all children enjoy eating fish, a rich source of this nutrient, however. If you have a kid who hates eating fish, you can give them other rich sources of Omega-3s, such as walnuts, kale, fortified peanut butter, eggs, or fortified orange juice.
Remember to Encourage Water
Water is an underrated beverage when it comes to mental health. A child can be mildly dehydrated without anyone around them realizing it. And mild dehydration can lead to mental health issues or symptoms like irritability and problems concentrating.
Most kids should be getting around 6 to 8 cups of water per day, in addition to the milk they drink.
Reach For More Yogurt
The vagus nerve, which is a component of the nervous system that aids in controlling mood, links the gastrointestinal tract and the brain.
To help ensure your gastrointestinal tract is getting what it needs, make sure your child is getting prebiotics and probiotics. Probiotics, which can be found in yogurt, are the friendly bacteria in the gut. Prebiotics, which can be found in beans, oats, garlic, bananas, and berries, are components that help make the gut a friendlier place for that good bacteria to flourish.
Break Out the Dark Chocolate
Kids love chocolate, but parents don’t feel great about giving them milk chocolate because of all the high amount of added sugar it has. Instead of allowing a child to reach for milk chocolate when they want a treat, consider giving dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate has a high flavonoid content and is rich in antioxidants. This tasty treat has earned a reputation as being a mood-improving food. It can give your brain health a boost, too.
It doesn’t take a big serving to get the benefit -- shoot for an ounce every day or every other day for children. Getting their daily dose of chocolate will also stave off any feelings of deprivation they might have if you’re limiting some of their favorite foods to help with their mental health.
Choose Whole-Grain Breads
Whole-grain breads are complex carbohydrates. What complex carbohydrates can do to a person’s mental health is increase the amount of serotonin the brain produces. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter used in many functions, including emotions and moods. A deficiency in serotonin can lead to depression and anxiety.
A simple way to get more whole-grains in a child’s diet is by swapping in this type of bread instead of white bread. You can also find whole-grain cereal to feed your child for breakfast instead of reaching for sugary cereal. Finally, if your child is a pasta fan, they likely won’t know the difference if you swap out your regular pasta noodles for whole-grain ones instead.
Eat More Fruit
The flavonoids that we mentioned in connection with dark chocolate are one of the reasons fruit is such a healthy choice for warding off mental health issues too. Fruits such as plums, oranges, berries, and apples are rich in flavonoids, making them great choices for children. Strive for several servings a day.
Skip the Soda
Let’s address the one good thing about soda -- it’s delicious. But everything else about soda is bad. There are so many reasons to keep your child away from soda as much as possible. It has no nutrients, a ton of sugar, and it can take the calcium right out of their bones. The caffeine in soda can interfere with a child’s sleep, which is critical for their growth and development.
But, what is of the biggest concern from a mental health perspective, is research that suggests a diet high in sugar can inflate a person’s chances of anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia.
It’s a great idea to limit the soda to an occasional treat for children instead of a daily indulgence.
Limit the Fried Food
Another go-to for people when they are feeling stressed or are super hungry is a big helping of fried food. It’s a comfort food people seem to love, whether it’s french fries, cheese sticks, or chicken tenders.
But that fried food isn’t doing your child’s mood any favors. Fried food is a contributor to inflammation, and too much inflammation can lead to disease and mood issues, like depression.
Grab Some Leafy Greens
Leafy green vegetables are often considered superfoods for a good reason -- they contain so many nutrients but are low in calories. They are also a great source of folate, and folate is one of the nutrients known to decrease depression risk.
Children’s Mental Health is an Important Topic
Mela wants to be part of the solution to this widespread problem, so for that reason, they proudly give their support to a charity partner, YoungMinds. To learn more about YoungMind’s mission and opportunities for involvement, visit the website.
To help a child learn how their nutrition can impact mental health, use a daily food diary to record their dietary intake and how they feel that day as a result of their choices. A great diet to try is the Mediterranean diet, which has been linked to a steeply lower chance of experiencing symptoms of depression.
By working together, we can shine a spotlight on the struggles of our youth relating to mental health issues and strive to find a solution.