Diet plays a huge part in how we feel and behave, and this is especially true for children. The right nutrition can help to alleviate learning and behavioural difficulties. Here is Patrick Holford’s five-point plan to helping your child balance their mood and improve their concentration…
1. Take your child off foods with additives or added sugar
Sugar creates imbalances in energy that can contribute to erratic behaviour and mood changes. Sweets, chocolates, cakes, biscuits, some breakfast cereals, soft drinks, puddings and many other foods all contain sugar in one of its many forms. When checking labels, look out for sucrose, glucose, maltose, dextrose, inverted sugar syrup, golden syrup, corn syrup and treacle.
Also check for additives – artificial colourings, sweeteners, preservatives and flavourings can all contribute to adverse behaviour, particularly the orange colouring tartrazine (E102) found in some orange squashes and sweets.
So avoid giving your child processed foods and opt instead for natural and sugar-free alternatives.
2. Increase fruit and veg and foods rich in nutrients
Rather than letting your child fill up on junk food, give them whole, nutritious food to eat. White bread, rice and pasta have the nutrients stripped out, so opt instead for wholemeal varieties, which are also more filling and contain fibre to encourage healthy digestion.
Ensure too their diet is rich in fresh fruit and vegetables which provide vitamins and minerals essential to support their health while they are growing. Some children may be reluctant to swap the sweets for an apple, but if you hold firm, often their sweet tooth will recede.
Also use your imagination to make fresh food more exciting – tempt them with bite-size snacks of cherry tomatoes or grapes, bake apples or bananas with sultanas and serve with creamy Greek yoghurt, cut vegetables into fun shapes to eat with dips, or pureé and ‘disguise’ in sauces and soups.
For children who are used to a diet of processed food such as chicken nuggets or fish fingers, it may help to switch across first to a home made equivalent such as chicken strips and fish cakes and then gradually introduce more vegetables into the mix, eg fish and broccoli cakes etc. That way their taste buds gradually adjust to natural vegetable flavours.
Nutritious recipes for children can be found in Smart Food for Smart Kids and also in Lucy Burney’s excellent book Optimum Nutrition for Babies and Young Children.
3. Boost levels of essential fats
Some fats, like saturated varieties found in processed meats and fried foods, are bad for health, but others are essential and a deficiency could negatively impact on your child’s behaviour. For example, the brain and nervous system needs a good supply of fat to function and develop effectively.
To ensure your child gets enough essential fats you have three choices:
- Oily fish three times a week, ie salmon, mackerel, sardines, fresh not tinned tuna (as the tinned variety has the natural oil taken out);
- A heaped tablespoon of freshly-ground seeds on their cereal or sprinkled on soups or in salads every day. The magic formula is mix half pumpkin, sunflower and sesame with half linseeds, store in a glass jar in the fridge then grind fresh in a coffee grinder before serving. Seeds also make great snacks to munch, like Agent Mulder in The X Files;
- Supplement essential fats. This could either be a fish oil (which contains omega 3 fats) or a seed oil (which contains a blend of omega 3 and omega 6 fats). These are available as liquids or capsules from health food shops. Some of the liquid versions have added natural flavourings that may make them more acceptable to your child.
4. Supplement the diet
It’s hard to get all the nutrients we need from our diet, so to be sure your child is not deficient, supplement their diet with a good-quality daily multivitamin and mineral designed for children (available from good supermarkets and specialist food shops). Most small children cannot swallow so they will need to be chewable.
5. Eliminate allergens from the diet
If you suspect your child is intolerant to a particular food – for example, if they react badly after eating the same thing, or they seem to crave a particular food – eliminate it from their diet and monitor the reaction.
If after two weeks you see no difference in behaviour/symptoms, reintroduce it and see if there’s a reaction. If not, then try a different suspected food group until you find what’s bothering them (or find that food’s not in fact the problem).
The most common allergens are wheat, gluten (the protein found in wheat and also barley, rye and to a lesser extent oats), dairy foods, eggs, citrus fruits, tea, coffee, chocolate and soya.
You can also test for more than 113 foods simultaneously with an allergy test which you can conduct at home from Yorktest. This is a quick and effective way of establishing what is affecting your child using a finger-prick sample of blood.
Some ideas for healthy eating:
Breakfast – oat porridge, shredded wheat, fresh fruit smoothies (fruit blended with yoghurt and seeds), boiled egg with wholemeal soilders, rye toast with chopped banana and peanut butter or sugar-free jam.
Lunch – a sandwich made with wholemeal bread with a tasty filling (eg tuna, egg, cheese, humous, salad), hunks of cheese, cherry tomatoes, vegetable sticks, a slice of quiche for packed lunches; jacket potatoes, soups, scrambled or poached eggs or salads at home.
Supper – fresh (not processed) meat, fish or vegetable protein (soya, beans or lentils) with fresh vegetables, wholemeal spaghetti with a fresh tomato sauce, chilli with brown rice or fresh vegetable risotto. If your child eats a very limited range of vegetables it sometimes helps to get them to come to the greengrocers with you. Let them choose a new vegetable they would like to try and get them to buy into it!
For healthy snacks – fresh fruit (for faddy eaters it often helps to cut into fruit into pieces and they will gradually eat it without noticing!), wholemeal toast with peanut butter, almonds and pumpkin seeds, oat cakes or carrot sticks with humous, or homemade flapjacks sweetened with dried fruit or honey.
NB – do not give your child peanuts, nuts or seeds if you suspect they have an allergy or if they mix with other children with anaphylactic allergies.
More information on the ways that Optimum Nutrition can beneficially help the mind for both children can be found in Patrick Holford’s book – Optimum Nutrition for Your Child’s Mind.
For recipes, read Smart Food for Smart Kids and also Lucy Burney’s Optimum Nutrition for Babies and Young Children.