Using food to help manage anxiety and low mood in children.
Anxiety, low mood, and depression are increasingly common among children and young adults. Good nutrition plays a key role in supporting mental wellbeing, with many foods shown to supply essential nutrients for mental health.
Blood sugar balance
Blood sugar regulation is a key step in alleviating anxiety and supporting mood balance. Highs and lows in blood sugar levels caused by eating refined sugary foods can worsen symptoms of low mood and anxiety.
To help keep blood sugars on a more even keel it is important to:
- Include good quality protein with each meal and any meal rather than regular snacks. Protein helps to slow down the release of sugars from carbohydrates into the bloodstream. Good quality protein can be found in eggs, meat, fish, dairy, tofu, beans, nuts, and pulses.
- Eat regularly and not skip meals. Research shows that out of an average class of 30 secondary school children, at least 4 will not have had breakfast before starting class, and at least 3 will miss lunch. These children report much lower wellbeing scores than their counterparts who have regular meals.
- Swap refined carbohydrates like white bread and white pasta for wholegrain alternatives.
- Limit cakes and sweets to occasional treats after a main snacks.
Fats for brain health
Children’s brains are constantly absorbing information and building new neural circuits. These new connections require healthy fats as part of their structure. Lack of healthy fats in the brain is a bit like having a poor mobile phone signal – communication is patchy and unreliable – and can affect memory, concentration, and mood balance.
Sources of healthy fats:
- Oily fish like salmon and mackerel provide the long-chain fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
- Walnuts, and flax, chia, pumpkin, and sunflower seed oils provide the ‘parent’ fatty acid to EPA and DHA called alpha linolenic acid (ALA). If your child is vegan or vegetarian, their brain is relying on the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA. Some vegans and vegetarians supplement with EPA and DHA derived from algae, as a form of nutritional insurance.
Government advice recommends all children supplement with at least 400iu of D3 everyday between October and April. During this time, sunlight isn’t strong enough to stimulate vitamin D manufacture in skin. Many young people will require supplements all year round, especially if they have darker skin or stay indoors a lot. Vitamin D receptors are found throughout the brain, and the vitamin plays an essential role in mental health.
Often called the ‘anti-stress’ mineral, magnesium is needed for the formation and function of mood chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. Top food sources include dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and buckwheat – foods which many children dislike. Magnesium supplements suitable for children are available.
All the B-vitamins are needed for regulating mood and managing anxiety. Vegetables, wholegrains, meat, fish, dairy, nuts, and pulses are good sources. Vegan children may need to supplement with B12 as the only bioavailable forms are found in animal products.
Food is a gentle yet powerful way to support mental wellbeing. Making a few dietary tweaks can increase levels of nutrients needed for mood regulation and managing anxiety. Involving your child in this process can be an empowering experience for them.
Hayhoe, R, et al. (2021) Cross-sectional associations of schoolchildren’s fruit and vegetable consumption, and meal choices, with their mental well-being: a cross-sectional study BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health doi: 10.1136/bmjnph-2020-000205