Nutrition for Anxious Children - Food for the Brain

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought much disruption, fear and anxiety, and this is particularly true amongst children and teens who have been affected by school closures, physical distancing and new routines. It is no surprise, then, that many children have been feeling more anxious or exhibiting signs of anxiety, and that related conditions such as OCD, social anxiety and disordered eating appear to be on the rise. Witnessing this in a child can be very worrying and stressful for parents.

At Food for the Brain, we’re passionate about sharing the science and nutritional strategies that promote good brain health and mental wellbeing at every life stage. Nurturing healthy brains in children is particularly important given the growing body of evidence connecting diet and mental health. 

Diet and Mental Health

We all know that diet plays a huge part in our health, but recently we have started to understand more about its connection to mental health. Unhealthy dietary patterns have been associated with poorer mental health in children and adolescents. Furthermore, a 2017 paper published in Public Health Nutrition found the UK to have the most ‘ultra-processed’ diet in Europe, as measured by family food purchases. British children were found to be eating “exceptionally high” proportions of ultra-processed foods*, which is likely to be contributing to health problems.

Specific Nutrients for Mental Health

The brain is the most energy-hungry organ in the body, stealing roughly 25% of the body’s energy requirements. In addition, there are specific nutrients that play a role in mental wellbeing. Ensuring good levels of these nutrients can support your child’s brain and mental health. 

Zinc

Zinc is a mineral found in higher concentrations in seafood, organ meat, chickpeas, lentils and pumpkin seeds – not foods that tend to be loved by children. Zinc can also be found in other foods such as the dark meat of chicken, yogurt, almonds and peas, but it may be harder to obtain the amounts children need from these sources.

Zinc is believed to interact with an important anti-anxiety brain chemical called GABA. GABA is the body’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it prevents excitatory neurotransmitters like dopamine and noradrenaline from over-stimulating the brain. This relaxes us and promotes feelings of calm, as well as helping to slow down our heart rate and breathing. In those who are deficient in GABA, feelings of anxiety and stress can be common symptoms.

Although zinc has not been as well researched as other nutrients, it has been connected in research to both ‘mood disorders’ and depression. Zinc supplementation may even reduce anger and lessen depression.

If your child does not eat seafood, chickpeas or chicken, you could encourage them to eat extra almonds, cashews and pumpkin seeds, to make up for any potential shortfalls. You could try making things like energy balls with nuts and seeds, adding raisins or dried apricots, which are also high in iron. 

Vitamin B6

B6 is really important for our mental wellbeing because the body uses it to make brain chemicals like GABA and serotonin, which make us feel calm, focussed and happy.

This vitamin is found in a wide range of foods such as meat, fish, chickpeas, vegetables and wholegrains. However, if your child’s diet mostly comprises refined, white foods such as bread and pasta, they may be losing out on important sources of this vitamin. Wholegrains and wholefoods should be the focus, keeping refined white flour to a minimum to help achieve good B6 levels. 

Iron

According to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency is the most prevalent nutritional deficiency. Iron deficiency in children is known to affect behaviour and learning, and has also been associated with increased anxiety and social problems. 

The best sources of iron are red meat, seafood and the dark meat of chicken. Plant foods also contain a lot of iron, such as beans, lentils, kale, cabbage and broccoli. Eggs and dairy contain iron in smaller amounts and may be a good source if your child will not eat plant or meat sources. An emphasis on green vegetables, however, is always recommended for overall good health.

What if my child doesn’t like these foods?

The biggest challenge for parents tends to be picky eaters, and time restraints. A picky eater may exclude whole food groups, such as animal protein or plant foods such as beans or greens. This may cause children to struggle to get the nutrition they need for good mental health.

Top Tips: It’s not easy coaxing a fussy child to eat something they don’t like, but disguising the food within something they do like can be a good trick. For example, making a well seasoned vegan burger using chickpeas. Or a creamy soup, sneaking in mixed vegetables, then blending until smooth for children who don’t like lumps. Shredding onion and celery into tomato sauce also disguises them well. Follow us on social media for additional tips this month on preparing meals for picky eaters.

* This report by The Soil Association provides useful information on ultra-processed foods and how to spot them.

With thanks to our volunteer, Linda Albinsson at Thrive Kids Clinic, for this article.