Optimum Nutrition for your Child’s Mind

Children have been struggling with mental health. A recent government report says that mental health issues have gone up by an average of over 50% over the covid years, so it is really important to support your child’s mental health, and maximise your child’s potential by feeding them the best brain food.

Here I outline an easy to follow six-point plan to help you balance your child’s mood and improve their concentration both at school and at play. To find out more about how you can maximise your child’s potential read Optimum Nutrition for your Child.

1. Take your child off foods with additives or added sugar

Sugar creates imbalances in energy that can contribute to erratic behaviour, hyperactivity 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, avoid foods that contain sucrose, glucose, malt, dextrose, inverted sugar syrup, golden syrup, corn syrup and honey. 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, mono-sodium glutamate (MSG) and caffeine. It’s better to avoid giving your child processed foods and instead opt for natural, sugar-free alternatives.

Sugared and caffeinated drinks are the worst. Researchers at Yale University gave healthy children a sugary soft drink followed by a blood test. They discovered that their adrenalin levels were FIVE times higher than normal for up to five hours after they’d consumed the drink and that levels of irritability and anxiety increased in the children during the test period. A UK study found that reducing sugar levels halved the number of disciplinary actions in young offenders.

2. Increase fruit, veg and foods rich in vitamins and minerals

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 for building a strong healthy body. 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, berries or grapes, bake apples or pears with cinnamon and serve with creamy Greek yoghurt, cut vegetables into fun shapes to eat with dips, or puree 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 e.g. fish and broccoli cakes etc. That way their taste buds gradually adjust to natural vegetable flavours.

3. Boost levels of essential fats

Some types of fats called trans fats found in processed foods should be avoided. These are hydrogenated fats and are typically found in packaged foods with a long sell by date. However, there are other fats that 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 special essential fats called omega 6 and omega 3 to function and develop effectively. To ensure your child gets enough of these fats give them the following: Oily fish i.e. salmon, mackerel, tuna (preferably fresh not tinned tuna as there’s more omega 3 in fresh) 3 times a week; AND 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. AND Supplement essential fats. A trial studying the effects of essential fats on school children up to 12 years of age found significant improvements in reading, writing and symptoms of ADHD after three months. I recommend supplementing both omega 3 (EPA and DHA) and omega 6 (GLA). 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.

4. You could supplement the diet

Your child could benefit from giving a quality daily multivitamin in addition to a well-balanced diet. All the evidence shows that just eating the recommended daily amount (RDA) of vitamins is not enough to really maximise their potential. Simply put, if you want to guarantee optimum nutrition for your child to give them a high strength children’s multivitamin with more than the RDA, especially for B vitamins. A study in Sweden found a direct association between school grades and homocysteine (an indicator of vitamin B deficiency). The higher the homocysteine levels, the lower the school grades. Researchers in the US gave 200 seventh grade children a daily dose of zinc and found that those given the highest level – twice the RDA – had faster and more accurate memories and better attention spans than those given the RDA. Zinc is rich in seeds and nuts.

5. Eliminate allergens from the diet

If you suspect your child is intolerant to a particular food – for example, you notice they react badly after eating the [same thing] certain foods, 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 foods that cause problems are wheat, gluten (the protein found in wheat, barley and rye and a slightly less allergenic version in oats), dairy foods and eggs.

6. Never skip breakfast

Eating a decent breakfast really is essential for your child to be able to concentrate at school. If their blood sugar stays low all morning they can experience anything from dizziness to lack of focus. Avoid toast and jam or sugary cereals as these will fire up your child for a short time, making them hyperactive or irritable (see point 4) and then result in an energy dip mid-morning. Instead, oatflakes instead of sugared cornflakes or porridge made with natural rolled oats and sweetened with fresh fruit will keep them feeling energised until lunchtime. Studies in the US and UK have shown that children of all ages show significantly improved listening, concentration and mental agility skills when they have had breakfast, than those who skip it. In one study, 8-11 year olds who were fed a healthy breakfast took just half the time to complete an arithmetic test as their hungry counterparts.

Some ideas for healthy eating:

Breakfast – Avoid sugary cereals and opt for oat based cereals such as porridge (sweetened with grated apple) or museli, fresh fruit smoothies (fruit blended with yoghurt and seeds or milk and Get Up & Go) poached or boiled egg with wholemeal soldiers, or kippers.

Lunch – a sandwich made with wholemeal bread with a tasty filling (e.g. 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 – It is important to make sure there is some element of protein in every meal – 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 find something new that they like and introduce it in small quantities.

For healthy snacks – fresh fruit (for faddy eaters it often helps to cut fruit into bite size pieces and place on the table in front of them – they will gradually eat it without noticing!), oat cakes or wholegrain bread with peanut butter, almonds and pumpkin seeds, oat cakes or carrot sticks with humous, or Nairns oat biscuits or homemade flapjacks sweetened with dried fruit or honey.

More Information

To find out more about how optimum nutrition can help your child, read Optimum Nutrition for your Child.

The Patrick Holford Essentials range – Optimum Nutrition Formula, Essential Omegas and ImmuneC is suitable for teenagers from age 14, as well as the Mind range – Brain Food, Chill Food and Mood Food. Available from HOLFORDirect.