The Relationship Between Food, Mood & Behavior in Children
Mental health disorders among children and adolescents are described as serious changes in the way children typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions. This can cause distress and problems in getting through the day. Among the more common diagnosable disorders in children are attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and depression. The rate of mental health disorders in children continues to rise in the United States (US) as well as many other countries. In fact, the prevalence of depression among US adolescents has increased by 30% over the last decade. It is estimated that one out of five adolescents has a diagnosable mental health disorder, and nearly one third show symptoms of depression.
The standard treatment for mental health disorders include psychotherapy, behavioral therapy and medications. However, there is a growing interest in alternative approaches to prevent and manage these disorders. Researchers concluded that the diets of some people with mental health disorders lack in key nutrients for brain well-being. Studies show that replenishing these nutrients can play an important role in treating mental health disorders. The fast growing approach that uses food and supplements in the treatment of mental health conditions is known as nutritional psychiatry.
Nutritional psychiatry is a relatively new field and the research has been studying the link between diet and risk of mental health conditions and treatment for about ten years. The research produced in the past decade is extremely compelling. A growing body of evidence suggests that nutritional treatment may help prevent, treat, or improve depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, autism, addiction, and eating disorders. The scientific community is beginning to see how food is strongly linked to brain health/mental health.
Nutritional focused studies show that diets that contain highly processed foods, along with high sugar and fat content are linked highly with ADHD symptoms and depression in children and adolescents. Recent large studies in adults demonstrate that individuals with consumption of better quality diets such as a whole food, plant-based diet or Mediterranean-style diet are less likely to have depression. These diets are high in omega-3 fatty acids (from fish), monounsaturated fat (from olive oil) and natural folate and other B vitamins (from legumes, fruits, nuts and vegetables). Intuitively, it would make sense to begin these dietary habits early in life for mental health benefits over the life span.
One theory hypothesizes that children and adolescents with mental health issues self medicate with specific food choices, many of which are unhealthy and devoid of nutrients. However, it is equally as possible that the influence of early eating habits and nutritional intake has an important impact on mood and behavior. There are known biological pathways that may have an impact on mental health in children and adolescents that are potentially affected by diet quality. First, a poor quality diet that is lacking nutrient-dense foods may lead to nutrient deficiencies that have been associated with mental health issues. Dietary intake of adequate vitamin D, B vitamins, folate, zinc, and magnesium is associated with decreased incidence of depressive disorders. Inadequate dietary omega-3 fatty acids (or imbalance between the ratio of dietary omega 6 to omega 3 ratio) are related to anxiety disorders and ADHD and behavioral problems. In fact, supplementation of fish oil may help to alleviate ADHD symptoms, anger, impulsivity and aggression, in addition to improving academic performance. Metabolism/metabolic systems including immunity, oxidative processing, regulation of brain protein levels may be impacted by dietary intake and have a known association with depression. It is important to note that consistent evidence has shown that higher quality diets (i.e., those higher in nutrient-dense foods) and diets high in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates are each independently related to depression, suggesting the possibility of the body’s different pathways.
As the evidence mounts, it’s clear that what your child puts in her mouth impacts her mood and behavior. If you are interested in how nutrition, lifestyle and supplements impact you or your child’s mental health, consider seeking the guidance of a licensed professional, such as a Registered Dietitian – Nutritionist, who is well versed in Nutritional Psychiatry.
Gina Barbetta MS, RD, CD-N is a Registered Dietitian – Nutritionist with over 25-years of experience. She has over 15 years of experience in the nutrition management of pediatric clients. She is the owner of Nourish by Gina, LLC located at the Red Barn in Durham – New Earth Holistic Therapies & Art Center. Gina uses an integrative, personalized approach to manage adult and pediatric nutrition issues. She integrates a variety of nutrition therapies including whole foods, therapeutic – grade supplements and mind body modalities into her practice.
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