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Janine Lara Schaeffer, child and adolescent psychologist, nutritional therapist 

The Importance of Good Nutrition From the Beginning 

There are several reasons why a balanced diet consisting of (i) carbohydrates (most importantly fruits and vegetables, but also whole grains), (ii) healthy sources of protein (such as lentils and beans, grass-fed organic meat and dairy products, pasture-raised eggs, wild caught fish, seafood, nuts and seeds), and (iii) healthy fats (such as avocados, extra virgin olive oil, grass-fed organic butter and ghee) is important for a child, namely: 

 

  • It provides a basis for healthy teeth & bones; 

  • It prevents malnourishment, which can lead to issues such as being over-weight or obesity, fatigue, moodiness, and low muscle mass; 

  • It can help prevent chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers; 

  • It is a factor for providing a healthy gut microbiome and can help prevent mental health and hormonal problems. 

Let us look at childhood nutrition and mental health a little bit more before covering some steps parents can take. We know that many things influence a child’s mental health and one of these things is nutrition.

 

A literature review done in 2017 looked at the association between diet quality and depression in children and young people and overall there was support for an association between healthy dietary patterns or consumption of a high-quality diet and lower levels of depression or better mental health.

 

Similarly, there was a relationship between unhealthy diet and consumption of low-quality diet and depression or poor mental health. A meta-analysis done in 2019 showed a positive effect of healthy diets on health-related quality of life in domains such as emotional and school functioning, physical functioning, and psychological quality of life. It was found that lower quality diet was associated with decreased health-related quality of life among children and adolescents. 

 

There has been a lot of attention lately on the gut/brain connection and studies show that gut health, and the bacteria in the gut, can have a direct effect on mental health, showing symptoms of anxiety and depression when the microbiota is disrupted by dysbiosis (an imbalance of gut bacteria associated with an unhealthy outcome). It is not for nothing that our gut is often referred to as our 'second brain'. The gastrointestinal tract produces 95 per cent of the serotonin in our body, a neurotransmitter that impacts the presentation of depression and anxiety. Studies show that youth with chronic gastrointestinal diseases have a much higher rate of psychiatric disorders, putting them at risk of increased stress and poorer quality of life. 

 

Making sure your child is getting the recommended amount of nutrients is not always easy but getting enough nutrients is important for a child’s development and mental health. The standard western diet consists of too little vegetables and too much processed foods and sugar. Children are highly impressionable and begin to implement routines and habits that they will carry on with them into adulthood at quite a young age. For example, if a salad is offered with every dinner, then a child becomes used to this and may not feel like a dinner is complete without a salad! Moreover, the child will carry this habit into adulthood.

 

While we cannot avoid many toxins in today’s world, we can try our best in the areas that we do have control over such as what we put in our mouths or on our bodies for example. While making healthy food choices is only a small part of avoiding toxins, it is in my opinion an important basic part that needs to 

be addressed. These suggestions can be implemented immediately to help our children make healthier choices, have a good relationship with food and try to feed them in the best way possible: 

 

  • Set a good example. Children learn best by observing and not by being lectured. The first step is to change our own habits. 

  • Cook together. Children are often more inclined to eat vegetables when they have cooked them themselves! 

  • As the child gets older, read nutrition labels together and discuss. Education is key. 

  • Don’t forbid food with unhealthy ingredients (as this can backfire) but have conversations around why they are not every day foods or need to be consumed in moderation. It is about finding balance in the society we live in, without risking our health status. 

  • Fill the fridge/pantry with nutritious food and healthy versions of treats without questionable ingredients or refined sugar. They will get enough of that other stuff at birthday parties etc. 

  • Vary foods! Try to introduce as many different foods as possible and make it a habit to introduce new foods. It is easy to get stuck in the same weekly (or even daily) menu but the more we vary our food, the better, as it helps prevent intolerances/allergies and helps us get a larger array of nutrients. ‘Eating the rainbow’ is always a good idea and can be made into a game! 

  • Check out examples online about how to talk to our children age-appropriately about food. Different charts can be found which can be used as a reference. For example, there are charts listing the colour of the food and next to it what that colour helps with (e.g. orange: good for eyes) and then for an older child there are charts that list the vitamins in these foods with more detail on what they are ‘good’ for. These conversations can be more helpful than focusing on what the foods are ‘bad’ for. 

  • Try preparing the same foods in different ways. For example, while a child may not like raw or steamed carrots sticks, they may like grated carrot salad with some raisins. 

  • Make water and herbal tea the main drink in the house. I have come across many kids that always drink juices or water with syrup at home and therefore do not accept water anymore, which all comes back to habits. 

  • Create balanced meals and snacks including carbohydrates, protein, and fats in order to maintain stable blood sugar levels, since unstable blood sugar levels can lead to difficulty concentrating, lethargy, moodiness, and other behavioural issues. 

  • Include adequate omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, as this has been associated with better sleep quality and less anxiety. Fatty fish and seaweed are excellent sources. 

  • Create routines around eating, like sitting at the dinner table together as a family instead of eating while being distracted. For some smaller children, it is difficult to stay seated at the dinner table. Not giving up around this and trying to create this habit is important. Perhaps lighting a candle together before eating or saying a prayer can help. Making meal time a pleasurable experience by talking about nice things may also help. Talking about the importance of chewing food and eating slowly and setting a good example with this basic step is great, as this is a very important step for healthy digestion. We start the process of digestion already before we even take the first bite of our food with the anticipation of our food, which is why mindful eating can help us with digestive problems. While we cannot physically make our children eat in a mindful way we can set a good example and keep educating them about it and try to create these routines. 

My advice is that it is always important to look at nutrition and gut health. Not only when your child is suffering from obvious gastro-intestinal issues, such as stomach pain, constipation, or diarrhoea, but also when a child is suffering from any sort of mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, behavioural problems, or learning disabilities. We must not overlook nutrition and gut health.

 

With any of the above issues, I highly recommend consulting a functional doctor/nutritional therapist/naturopath who considers physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health and works with a holistic approach. When we look at what is going on with a child’s gut health and treat them, we will often see many improvements in various aspects of a child’s well-being, especially when we combine this treatment in a holistic way as described above.

 

It is this combination of therapies which provides the best results, which is why the plan that I recommend for my clients does not only look at gut health but also incorporates lifestyle and mental health and includes different complementary forms of therapy to make the therapy plan as effective as possible.

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