Eating right at young age can lead to lifetime of mental well-being, pediatric dietitian says

Getting kids to eat well-balanced diets can be a challenge for parents and caregivers. But the benefits are many, like proper growth, laying the foundation for lifelong eating habits, and last but not least, improved mental health.

Empty calories make up a large part of kids’ diets. Added sugars and solid fats contribute up to 40 percent of daily calories for kids between 2 and 18 years old. About half of these empty calories come from soda, fruit drinks, desserts, pizza and whole milk, according to the CDC.

Replacing some of those calories with more nutritious foods could lead to healthier and happier kids.

How diet can impact mental health

Have you ever been “hangry” or felt down when hungry? This is a simple example of what can happen when calories and nutrition are at a deficit. That can be amplified when someone is hungry for longer periods of time.

“The brain and the gut are two of the most complex areas of the body, with 500 million neurons that connect them,” SSM Health pediatric dietitian Katie Bybee said. “The brain and GI system are communicating constantly, so issues with one will impact the other. The brain runs best when the body is being fueled properly.”

Foods to focus on

Bybee identifies several foods kids (and adults) can eat that could improve mental health:

Fiber-rich whole grains, fruits and vegetables: Fiber helps release glucose slowly into the blood stream, helping eliminate spikes and dips in blood sugar that impact mood changes. Eating these foods instead of sugary items and simple carbohydrates can help the body regulate hunger better and improve brain function.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Fatty fishes like albacore tuna and wild salmon are high in omega-3s. For picky eaters, sneaking ground flaxseeds or chia seeds into smoothies and putting walnuts into muffins are an easy way to get more of these healthy fats into foods. These help support production of neurotransmitters and synapses in the brain.
Amino acids: These make up proteins that are used by the body to make the neurotransmitters that facilitate the passing of signals through the brain. Fish, poultry, beans, eggs, nuts and seeds provide the amino acids needed for proper neurotransmitter production.
Folate: A deficiency has been linked with depression. Stock up on things like dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, peas and asparagus.
Vitamin D: Inadequate vitamin D has been linked with depression. Good food sources of vitamin D are fortified dairy products, tuna and mushrooms.

Are your bad habits aging your heart? #HeartMonth

— SSM Health Wisconsin (@ssmhealthwi) February 27, 2019

The ultimate goal

A well-balanced diet is important for people of all ages. But establishing healthy habits and attitudes at a young age is crucial because it sets a child up for success throughout his or her life. This does not mean parents and caregivers need to start spending a lot more on groceries or serve up elaborate recipes at home.

“My main recommendation regarding diet and mental health is to eat a variety of foods on a daily basis,” Bybee said. “It’s easy to get stuck in a routine of eating the same foods every day, which can lead to nutrition deficiencies that take a toll on the body and brain. Daily intake of vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, whole grains and proteins helps children and adults be at their best physically and mentally.”

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