The connections between food, mood and behavior continue to develop, and many families could benefit from exploring how children, especially, are affected by diet. Mayo Clinic suggests that the ingredients in food affect behavior and the American Psychological Association says kids who have healthy diets are better able to regulate emotions and cope with stress. Much recent research seems to validate what many parents and teachers have known for years: “A well fed brain is more likely to lead to good mood, behavior and learning” (Rex, 2017).
What can we do?
As parents, there are steps we can take to ensure our children are getting the most out of the food they eat and that what they are eating doesn’t alter their moods or behavior negatively.
A child’s brain needs a regular supply of energy to manage thinking effectively and ongoing cognitive development. Many a parent, teacher, or coach can verify that mood and concentration levels can decline quickly if there is too much time between meals or healthy snacks.
Try and avoid certain things like foods high in preservatives, artificial food coloring, and refined sugar. This may mean you have to read many labels, which is time consuming, but may be well worth the effort. Consuming large amounts of sugar has been linked to depression, sleep issues, and cognitive delay in some children. Preservatives like MSG (monosodium glutamate), nitrates, and sodium benzoate can cause issues like hyperactivity and headaches. Dieticians suggest avoiding foods with artificial food coloring and for good reason. The dyes put in many foods marketed to children can contribute to anxiety, hyperactivity, headaches, and behavioral changes. And, these colorings have been found in foods you might not suspect like bread and yogurt. Watch out for yellow dye #5, red dye #40, and blue dye #1 in particular. While artificial additives like food coloring and preservatives can wreak havoc, for some children, the products contained in the dairy case at the supermarket can make them cranky, aggressive, and lead to more colds and ear infections.
Sometimes, it’s less about avoiding certain foods and more about ensuring our children are getting all the important nutrients they need. Eating a variety of foods is the best way to increase the likelihood our kids are getting the nearly 40 different nutrients they need. Research continues to develop, but some of those nutrients—like omega 3s and magnesium, iodine, selenium, and zinc—seem to be really important for our brains to learn and our moods to be steady. Unfortunately, the British Dietetic Association reports that, among children, low intake of these critical nutrients appears to be fairly common. Building a variety of fruits, vegetables, and fiber into our children’s diets will certainly help address this. Supplements can help too, but our bodies absorb nutrients from real food best. Not always offering the same fruits and veggies (just trying to vary the colors can be fun) and combining complex carbohydrates like different whole-grain breads and pastas with starchy rice, potatoes, and corn can add good variety.
Keep a food journal.
Keeping track of what is eaten, when it is eaten, and mood and behavior after it’s eaten is a great way to begin connecting some dots around how certain foods uniquely affect your child. And, it can help you ensure that your kid is eating regularly and taking in a variety of foods. This gives them the best chance of getting all the nutrients they need for healthy brains and bodies.
Seek the help of a pediatrician, nutritionist, or food allergist if problems with mood or behavior persist despite your efforts to track and manage your child’s diet. They may recommend supplements as a safety net for needed nutrients or they may suggest a more clinical process of eliminating some foods in a search for allergens or intolerances.
For children and adults alike, changing our dietary habits, especially if that change involves eliminating well-loved processed foods and sugary sodas, may feel like an uphill climb, but if moods and behavior change for the better, it will be well worth the effort.
Food and Drug Administration. (2018, February 6). Overview of food ingredients, additives and colors. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/food/food-ingredients-packaging/overview-food-ingredients-additives-colors.
Myers, Pam. (2017, July 24). 5 foods that negatively affect your child’s mood. Retrieved from https://childdevelopmentinfo.com/psychology/adhd-add/five-foods-negatively-affect-childs-mood/#gs.1ux04x.
Rex, Dave. (2017). Diet, behavior and learning in children. The British Dietetic Association (BDA). Retrieved from https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/DietBehaviourLearningChildren.pdf.
Ricketts, Donna. (2018, December 17). The Effects of Good Nutrition on Children’s Behavior. Healthy Eating | SF Gate. Retrieved from http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/effects-good-nutrition-childrens-behavior-9126.html.