My article/opinion piece in the Jersey Evening Post this week looked at how on how diet can help cause/alleviate anxiety and depression in children. Of course, the same goes for teens and adults. Here it is:
Folks, we’ve heard a lot recently about anxiety and depression in children, and horrible it is too. Is there one thing we can do to rid ourselves of this situation?
No, I don’t think so – it is a multifaceted problem and solution – but what if I were to tell you that processed foods can have a big part to play in causing mood disorders, and that good nutrition has a valuable part to play in regaining equanimity and taking away that nasty, insidious low-level anxiety that pervades the lives of so many children?
Gerald Durrell famously said, ‘The world is as delicate and as complicated as a spider’s web and, like a spider’s web, if you touch one thread, you send shudders running through all the other threads that make up the web.’
The same goes for our minds and bodies: each part of our nutrient intake has a knock-on effect to mood and vice versa – eat the wrong stuff and the consequences can literally be depressing.
At different, but interrelated, points on our own mental health web, we have diet-related stressors, inflammation, sleep, hormones, nutrients, fibre, your gut brain and gene expression.
There’s more too – but before you run away screaming, know you don’t need to learn the complex ins and outs, just the overview.
What’s gone wrong? Our increasing reliance on cheap convenience foods (for whatever reason) means many of our children have diets that are low in essential nutrients and high in antinutrients.
We’re not helped by ‘Big Food’ manufacturers and the media; for example, do you think there is something very wrong when we see big-fuss headlines about certain ‘brand’ foods not being available in food stores and these reports not being balanced by discussing the much bigger threat: diets based around processed fodder and not real food?
In terms of mental health, internal inflammation is one of your children’s enemies. It can be caused by food intolerances, diets high in sugars and transfats, grain products and meals low in natural foods.
If your child suffers from bloating, is under or overweight, sluggish, down in mood and not very energetic, the chances are he or she is suffering from a lack of feel good chemicals caused by inflammation, a shortage of vital nutrients and an imbalance of the right gut bacteria.
Yes, gut bacteria! Trillions of gut bacteria make up your ‘gut brain’ and, in the right balance, produce most of your feel-good chemical serotonin. Your gut brain and head brain are closely connected and what affects one affects the other.
Diets high in sugars and other cheap processed foods adversely affect your children’s good gut bacteria and thus their head brains and mood.
These carbohydrate- and additive-based processed diets (including grains, which digest quickly into glucose) may give a quick energy boost, but because they cause an over-splurge of insulin to be released, the high is followed quickly by an energy drop… and so the cycle continues.
These sadly quite addictive foods can also cause inflammation, poorer sleep quality and, sometimes, nerve damage. In fact, these ‘comfort foods’ are really just the opposite!
A processed food diet also cuts out essential nutrients, further disrupting gut bacteria and essential mood-enhancing chemical reactions. Just to add to the load, children’s bodies also start making chemicals that make them feel anxious and grumpy; this means our youngsters can really suffer.
So, what do children need to help good emotional health? Nutrient-dense, non-processed foods. Getting them engaged with fresh food is helpful. Local primary schools, along with some local bodies, are starting to do this, but you can also help them grow simple plant foods at home… and, as an added bonus, inhaling certain bacteria when handling soil has been shown to help elevate mood too!
So, to recap: Children are often exposed to chronic physical, emotional and dietary stresses, which can lead to inflammation, physical and emotional fatigue and a decrease in ‘feel good’ chemicals. On the other hand, a diet based around real foods can help give your children the mental head-start they need.
This means, ease out of their meals products with additives and added sugars, any other heavily processed foods, processed polyunsaturated oils (like sunflower cooking oil), fruit juices and drinks sweetened with aspartame and similar.
I would also recommend grain-based foods, especially cereals, bread and traditional pizza bases, are cut out altogether (they will not miss out on any nutrients!) or just kept for occasional use.
At the same time, assuming no intolerances, encourage your children to eat eggs, seeds, nuts, oily fish, fatty meats, dairy products such as natural bio-yoghurt and cheeses, and a range of colourful, fermented and in-season fresh vegetables; drink-wise, go for water and milks.
In conclusion, then: help your child to ERFED – eat real food every day. Bouan appétit!