Can food influence your child’s mood and mental health? It turns out that what your child eats and their food choices may positively affect their mood and mental health. Ironically, your child’s mood may influence what they choose to eat and how much they eat. Studies show that a nutritious diet can put your child in a relaxed state of mind, while feelings of stress can lead to overeating, or not eating at all. 

Experts are increasingly interested in the power of food on mood and mental health concerns. Whether it’s adding a piece of dark chocolate to the lunchbox or offering fatty fish at dinnertime, the foods you feed your child not only helps their learning and memory, but may also increase feelings of happiness, life satisfaction and well-being.

Why is this? It's down to the nutrients found in food. Here are some of the best ones to boost your kid's moods and how you can add them to your weekly meal plans.

4 nutrients to support your child’s mental health

1. Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an essential nutrient our bodies cannot make, is a precursor to a mood-stabilizing chemical in the brain called serotonin. A diet high in tryptophan has been linked to better mood and sleep patterns. 

2. Omega-3 fats

Omega-3 fats such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are associated with behavior, mood, and in cases where there is absence of these nutrients in the diet, more depressive symptoms

3. Vitamin B6

Also known as pyridoxine, Vitamin B6 is a water-soluble nutrient (meaning, your child needs to get sources of this everyday), and plays a role in mood regulation through producing neurotransmitters in the brain that regulate emotions.

4. Fiber

Fiber helps control blood sugar, avoiding dips and surges, which can affect your child’s mood.

9 mood boosting foods to add into your weekly meal plan

As you plan your weekly meals and snacks, consider adding some of these good-mood foods to your meal and snack rotation.

1. Colorful fruits and vegetables

It’s well known that colorful fruits and vegetables are full of phytonutrients, which fight the cells that incur aging of the brain, as well as other organs and tissues in the body. Flavonoids, which are abundant in fruits and vegetables, have been linked to reduced risk of depression. In children between 7 and 10 years, drinking a flavonoid-rich blueberry drink improved symptoms of depression and overall mood

Generally, studies have shown both fruits and vegetables are linked to better mood and mental wellbeing. In a nutshell, the more fruits and vegetables consumed, the more favorable the impact on mood

2. Leafy greens

Leafy greens, especially dark leafy greens, are rich in iron and other nutrients such as folate, fiber, magnesium and vitamins A and C. These nutrients support brain function and communication in the brain

Offer a variety of leafy greens, such as beet greens, kale, spinach, chard and dark salad greens. Add leafy greens into soups or stews, throw them into a stir-fry, an egg scramble, or a smoothie. Or, try a spinach, kale or basil-based pesto as an addition to meats, sandwiches or pasta.

3. Berries

Berries like blueberries or blackberries contain a variety of antioxidants, anthocyanins and polyphenols. These combat stress and elevate mood. They also improve memory, learning and knowledge processing.

Include berries on cereal, in salads, yogurt parfaits, smoothies, or just grab a handful to snack on. 

4. Pumpkin, banana and avocado

Pumpkins contain tryptophan and serotonin, brain chemicals that encourage relaxation. 

Bananas are high in vitamin B6, which support feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain. Also, because they deliver a combination of carbohydrate and fiber, bananas help stabilize blood sugar levels, prevent blood sugar swings, and promote mood control.

Last, avocados contribute close to 20 different vitamins and minerals in addition to fiber. Mash avocado on a sandwich in lieu of mayonnaise, chop it into cubes as a finger food for little ones, or serve a halved avocado with a squeeze of lemon juice and sprinkle of salt (my personal favorite).

Related: 8 brain-developing foods even your pickiest eater will love

5. Oats

Oats are an amazing mood-boosting food due to their tryptophan content, and other nutrients like B vitamins, fiber, and iron. An iron deficiency can cause fatigue, sluggishness and is associated with mood disorders. If you’re concerned about a potential iron deficiency, check in with your child’s pediatrician.

Oats can be enjoyed by the whole family in many ways–overnight oats, oatmeal, muesli, and granola. Add oats to meatloaf and homemade cookies to boost their fiber content.

6. Beans and lentils

These plant-based proteins offer protein and fiber, vitamin B6 and tryptophan, and are a versatile addition to many different recipes. They deliver a big dose of magnesium, zinc and selenium, all of which may improve spirits and are associated with lower rates of depression. 

Add these gems to soups and casseroles, or mix them into meat-based dishes for a nutritious boost, as well as a money saver.

7. Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds offer fiber, magnesium, and plant-based omega-3 fats. Walnuts, in particular, have been shown to reduce stress and tension due to their high levels of antioxidants, including omega-3 fats, folate and vitamin E.

Add nuts or seeds to cereal, as a yogurt topper, snack on them alone, or sprinkle them on top of salad or cooked veggies. If you have a nut-allergic child, pumpkin seeds offer similar benefits. 

Conveniently, there’s an array of nut butters available on the market today. Consider adding Brainiac Brain Butter with its BrainPack of brain-supporting nutrients, including DHA, EPA, and ALA, to your child’s lunch or snack. 

Related: 8 signs of stress in children—and when to seek expert help

8. Fatty fish

Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, tryptophan and vitamin B6, offer salmon, tuna and other fish twice weekly to reap the benefits on mood. For children, focus on low-mercury, high omega-3 fish like salmon and anchovies. 

Read more about getting kids to eat and like fish here.

9. Fermented foods

Scientists have known for years about the gut-brain connection. Keeping your gut healthy is tied to a healthy brain. Fermented foods offer probiotic strains that enhance gut functioning and have a host of other benefits for your child’s health. 

Include yogurt, kefir, kombucha and other fermented foods like sauerkraut or pickles to your child’s meals and snacks. Even cheeses, like Gouda and some cheddars, offer live, active cultures to build a healthy gut. 

The bottom line

It's true that no one food will be the cure-all for your child’s mood, anxiety or mental health concerns. However, a balanced and nutritious diet can offer a variety of nutrients that enhance brain function and mood. 

The best advice I can give, as a mother and pediatric dietitian, is to offer a variety of foods in your child’s diet, pay attention to the timing of meals and snacks so blood sugar swings are minimized, and include some of the known mood-enhancing foods outlined above in your child’s weekly eating pattern.  

Sources

AlAmmar, W.A., Albeesh, F.H. & Khattab, R.Y. Food and mood: the corresponsive effect. Curr Nutr Rep 9, 296–308 (2020). doi:10.1007/s13668-020-00331-3

Khalid S, Barfoot KL, May G, Lamport DJ, Reynolds SA, Williams CM. Effects of acute blueberry flavonoids on mood in children and young adults. Nutrients. 2017 Feb 20;9(2):158. doi:10.3390/nu902015

LaChance LR, Ramsey D. Antidepressant foods: An evidence-based nutrient profiling system for depression. World J Psychiatr 2018; 8(3): 97-104 doi:10.5498/wjp.v8.i3.97

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