How Can We Improve Child Mental Health Through Nutrition?

Posted by on Apr 16, 2013 in Blog, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Around one in ten young people are diagnosed with a mental health disorder and in an average school class three young people will have a mental health problem. That is disturbing news! According to Patrick Holford who founded the Food for the Brain Foundation:

‘One of the greatest unrecognized truths is the role of nutrition in the psychological health of our children.’

So what imbalances can occur in a child’s diet that can lead to poor mental health?

Blood sugar imbalance

Poor regulation of blood sugar levels can lead to poor concentration, irritability, aggression, anxiety and insomnia in children. Many children start the day with a refined breakfast cereal or a slice of white toast with jam / chocolate spread, plus a glass of fruit juice.

All of these foods are refined carbohydrates, or processed foods, which have lost their minerals during the refining process and which cause a sudden peak in blood sugar level. This is followed about two hours later by a significant dip in blood sugar levels. Consequently, during the morning, many school children experience poor concentration levels, irritability and impatience because their brains are not receiving the energy supply they need.

Giving children a wholegrain breakfast cereal with nuts and seeds or a cooked breakfast which is high in protein, minerals  and complex carbohydrates can have a much greater, sustaining effect on blood sugar levels.


A deficiency of protein

Many young children and adolescents are not getting enough protein. Popular food choices such as pasta, pizza, bread, crisps, chips, cakes, biscuits, sweets and sugary drinks are predominantly carbohydrate foods and as a result children are not getting sufficient protein for optimum mental health.

Protein is needed to make neurotransmitters in the brain and these are chemicals that control how we feel. For example:


  • Adrenalin motivates us and makes us feel good
  • GABA calms us down after a stressful event
  • Serotonin keeps us happy and contented
  • Acetylcholine is involved in helping us to remember things.


Without sufficient protein each day, children are unable to manufacture these important neurotransmitters and their mood can become depressed and they can lack in motivation or become anxious.

Giving children some protein with each meal is an important first step in helping them to perform to the best of their abilities and feel positive in themselves.

Reactions to specific foods

Some children can react negatively to certain foods; food additives, particularly colorings and benzoates have for many years been linked to hyperactivity but it could be that many more children react adversely to these substances than it was previously thought. In a recent study (McCann et al. 2007, See Note 1) among 300 children selected from the general population, two different cocktails of additives were given to the children. The results found all of the children exhibited hyperactive behavior after drinking one of the two cocktails.

We know, however, that it is not just food additives that can disrupt behavior. Another trial published in theLancet (Pelsser et al. 2011, See Note 2) found that when children with ADHD were put on an elimination diet their behavior improved significantly. This suggests that specific foods including wheat and dairy products can cause poor behavior in certain children.

Low levels of essential fats

Essential fats help children to stay physically healthy and also reduce their chance of developing asthma, eczema and infections. What is less well known however, is their role in mental health.

The transmission of messages in the brain takes place along neural networks which are predominantly made up of essential fats and these essential omega 6 and omega 3 fats have to come from our diet; the body cannot manufacture them. Children who are not getting enough omega 6 and omega 3 fats will have more difficulty in concentrating, remembering things and find tasks at school harder.

Studies have confirmed that children with specific learning difficulties such as those with ADHD have much lower blood levels of essential fats than children without this disorder and that they can benefit from supplementing their diet with them.

Giving children a diet rich in essential fats from oily fish, seeds and nuts will help to ensure that all children do their best at school.

If you would like advice about the link between nutrition and child mental health, contact Aimee Phlegar via



1- McCann D. et al. (2007) Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet Volume 370, Issue 9598;1560-1567

2- Pelsser L.M. et al. (2011) Effects of a restricted elimination diet on the behaviour of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (INCA study): a randomised controlled trial – The Lancet, Volume 377, Issue 9764; 494-503

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