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An expert’s guide on foods for kids suffering from anxiety
By Green + Simple kids health expert Kellie Montgomery
Did you know that what we eat has a powerful impact on every single system in our body – and our brain, and how well it functions is no exception to this? Research has shown that by eating an anti-inflammatory, whole-food Mediterranean style diet which is high in omega-3 fats, vegetables and wholefoods and is low in sugars and processed food can actually help prevent mental health disorders, and can even help recovery, and prevent relapse.
It makes sense when you think about it. The human brain, by weight, makes up only around 2 per cent of our body. But in terms of energy requirements, it requires around 20 percent of our energy. That’s enormous! And where does this energy come from? Our food, of course.
Mood disorders in children cover a whole spectrum of issues – ranging from simple behavioural challenges (like poor concentration at school or frequent tantrums) to diagnosed mental health illnesses like anxiety and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. The rate of diagnosed mental health disorders in Australian children is high, and in recent years, has been steadily growing; a recent Young Minds Matter study found almost 14 per cent of children aged between 4 years to 17 years old had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder in the previous 12 months. ADHD was the most common, followed by anxiety and conduct disorder. Rather worryingly, it’s anticipated that the rate of undiagnosed mental health disorders is also high, so the actual rate of mental illness is expected to be much higher.
Whether they have a diagnosed mental health condition, or are simply having a tantrum getting ready for school each morning, children with mood issues are probably my favourite clients to work with. Simply because if we can get a positive change in their mood and behaviour, it is so incredibly powerful for the whole entire family.
So, what can we do to support our child’s brain health, and their mood?
Water is critical to our brain; around 75 per cent of its mass is water, and even small changes in hydration state can affect its performance. Ensure your child drinks enough water (ideally filtered) each day. (This amount will differ according to their age, their activity level, and even the climate, but checking the colour of their middle of the day urine will help you evaluate if your child is dehydrated or not. Strong yellow urine? Need more water! Pale yellow? Sufficiently hydrated.)
Many studies have found a protective and therapeutic, benefit of eating a wholefood, Mediterranean-style anti-inflammatory diet for mental health outcomes. Getting your child to eat a variety of vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, protein and healthy fats like olive oil and avocado everyday is the goal. Eating this way supports our child’s optimal gut health by providing plenty of fibre for their microbiome to thrive, and it also gives their brain and body the micronutrients it needs to function well. Conversely, eating a diet high in processed and highly refined foods is associated with negative mental health outcomes. The key with children is to make small, consistent changes to move towards a wholefood diet. Persistence is key with fussy eaters! One of the most basic ways to increase your child’s overall wholefood intake is to ditch the processed breakfast cereal, & replace it with a wholefood option, like scrambled eggs on wholemeal sourdough or whole rolled oat porridge with seeds & peanut butter. (Read on below for a brain-boosting breakfast bowl!)
Our brain also needs fats. Fats help to protect our brain cells, and support them to work more efficiently. Cholesterol is a critical part of this (yep!) and omega-3 fats. Is your child eating the recommended 2-3 serves of fish and seafood each week? And what about pastured egg yolks? Include at least a few of those each week, too!
When we’re talking about mood and mental health, our neurotransmitters are a critical part of the puzzle. They can calm us down, or they can excite us, and they help us to feel good. To help build these neurotransmitters, our body needs amino acids, which come from protein in our foods. Aim to include protein with every main meal your child eats (bonus points for snacks, too!). Good sources are red & white meat, seafood, tofu, eggs, chickpeas, legumes, nuts, seeds, and yoghurt.
Blood sugar regulation also forms a big part of regulating children’s emotion, and reducing anxiety as well. Stable blood sugars support stable moods, and we can stabilise blood sugars through simple things like eating a high-protein breakfast like scrambled eggs, or rolled quinoa porridge with chia seeds, and reducing the amount of refined carbohydrates and sugars our child consumes throughout the day.
In terms of micronutrients, we want to ensure our child has sufficient levels of Vitamin D, folate, B12, B6 (in fact, the whole gamut of B vitamins) zinc, iron & magnesium. Basically, you want your child eating a wide range of wholefoods with plenty of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains and some healthy fats thrown in. Food allergies and deficiencies may also play a role in mental health illness. A few studies have found higher rates of coeliac disease among those diagnosed with anxiety, anorexia nervous and schizophrenia. Other studies suggest that iron deficiency plays a role in the development of ADHD in children. So it’s important to get thorough blood work done to rule out allergies or deficiencies if your child has mental health illness.
This breakfast gives your child fibre and protein (which will support their blood sugar regulation throughout the day), lots of antioxidants and plenty of fats to support their brain health.
½ cup whole greek yoghurt
1 teaspoon hemp seeds
1 teaspoon pepitas
1 teaspoon chia seeds
½ cup frozen blueberries and or raspberries
Large sprinkle cinnamon
½ teaspoon of honey (optional)
Add all ingredients to a bowl, and serve!
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