Why nutritious food is vital for children's mental health

Andrew Muir, The Good Foundation.
Andrew Muir, The Good Foundation. Photo: Supplied



COMMENT

Recently I've been following the impressive work conducted by the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University. The increasingly prominent field of nutritional psychiatry and, in particular, the work of Professor Felice Jacka, has identified and confirmed the link between food and mood.

Jacka's extensive research over the past 10 years has focused on the effects of diet on mental and brain health. According to Jacka, a diet high in trans fats, sugar and processed foods increases the likelihood of a child developing depression. Jacka has also shown that an unhealthy diet is related to a smaller hippocampus – the part of the brain central to learning and memory, as well as mental health – while a healthy diet is associated with a larger hippocampus.

Diets high in junk and processed foods (and low in vegetables, fruits, legumes, beans, healthy fats and fibre) are detrimental to kids' long-term health, which we know, but what is less well known is that it can also cause their mood to peak and trough like a rollercoaster as these foods temporarily activate the reward system in their brain. While I know how tempting it can be to deviate to the drive-thru to appease nagging kids, we have to remember that this is only a temporary solution. Inevitably they'll be hungry and cranky again, demanding more of the fatty and sugary foods they crave.

Likewise, when kids finish playing sport and are desperate for something to eat, parents justify buying them "a reward treat" –perhaps chips, a dim sim or chocolate bar from the canteen, rather than something nutritious precisely when their bodies are demanding sustenance after intense activity.

Giving children a snack loaded with sugar or fat may provide temporary satisfaction, but it also comes with mood swings traversing from a short-term high to a sluggish, cranky low as their body calls for the nutrition it still requires. Fruit or a sandwich with fresh ingredients, on the other hand, will provide kids with the necessary fuel their bodies need and sustain them for longer at an optimal mood.

Given half of all mental disorders start before the age of 14, we should consider our children's diets to be an important component of preventative mental health. Providing them with foods such as fruits, vegetables and wholegrains can help reduce depression.

We already know that exercising and social connectedness can improve our children's emotional health and by adding a healthy diet to this mix, you'll be giving them the best chance possible.

Andrew Muir is the founder and director The Good Foundation.