"Minding" What Your Kid Eats

How nutrition affects your child's mental health.

Andrea Markowitz, Ph.D.

HealthKey.com contributor

April 15, 2010


Researchers are finding more and more evidence that children's psychological well-being is associated, in part, with what they eat. However, this research topic is still relatively new and unchartered.

Here's a summary of the links that scientists are finding between nutrition and kids' mental health.

Getting Enough to Eat

Like the rest of the body, the brain needs nutrients in order to function properly. If the body doesn't get enough food, the brain doesn't get enough nutrients.

Multiple studies have shown that malnourishment causes psychological disturbances in children. Researchers have found, for example, that hungry children were more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems; were more likely to be apathetic, disinterested, irritable or hyperactive; have lower self-esteem or poorer social skills than their peers. Hungry teens were more likely to have difficulty getting along with other children and not have friends.

Too Much of a Bad Thing

Eating foods high in "bad" carbohydrates-those found in refined white grains and sugar-can contribute to depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and aggressive behavior, according to Healthy Mind Concepts. A recent study by Telethon Institute for Child Health found an association between higher levels of teens' behavior and emotional problems with a diet high in white bread and unrefined cereals as well as take-out foods, red meat, sugar and soft drinks. Compounding the problem is that people frequently crave and overeat "bad carbs" because the sugar high from these foods makes them feel temporarily better.

Some Mayo Clinic studies also suggest that certain food colorings and preservatives may cause or worsen hyperactive behavior in some children.

Getting Enough of the Good Things

Studies reported by the Mental Health Foundation (of the United Kingdom) linked attention deficit disorder (ADHD), depression, and schizophrenia to junk food and the absence of essential fats, vitamins and minerals in industrialized diets. For example, researchers found a significant improvement in the behavior of children with ADHD who received a mix of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

The following foods may help reduce symptoms of certain psychological disorders: Whole grains, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, spinach, peas, Brussels sprouts, calf liver, poultry, lamb, tuna, salmon, halibut, cod, cottage cheese, yogurt, bananas, strawberries, Kiwi fruit, eggs, nuts and seeds.

See the Mental Health Foundation's website for the entire list and for more information about nutrition and mental health.

Additional Sources: Department of Health and Social Services, Food and Research Action Center.