The Role of Nutrition in Children’s Mental Health
In honor of Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week (May 1-7, 2022), this week’s blog aims to explore nutrition’s role in children’s mental health.
It’s easy to recognize the importance of nutrition for overall health and well-being, not only to support optimal function of our organs and systems, but to foster a sense of calm, ease, and security surrounding one of our most basic physiological needs: food.
It is important to provide adequate nutrients in a child’s diet to promote optimal growth and learning, and it is also essential to instill healthy eating habits and behaviors in children, so they learn to intuitively nourish themselves – physically, mentally, and emotionally – without additional stress.
Of course, it is no easy feat to raise children with a stress-free relationship with food considering many obstacles present in our culture, including food shaming, social media, and body image.
Read on to bring awareness to the relationship between children’s mental health and nutrition, while considering tips and techniques to raise children with good self-esteem, diverse palates, body acceptance, and a positive relationship with food.
Children’s Mental Health Awareness
According to the CDC, rates of depression, anxiety, and ADHD in children are on the rise. Research indicates as many as 1 in 6 children between the ages of 6 and 17 have a treatable mental health disorder. Nearly 50% of lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, increasing to 75% by age 24.
There’s no doubt that the growing brain is subject to the many stresses of the world, including nutritional quality (or lack thereof), but also stress, anxiety, and depression, which might also stem from cultural pressures to look and eat a certain way.
Indeed, one of the most common stressful experiences for many young people is weight-based bullying and teasing. A 15-year research study led by Rebecca Puhl, PhD, indicates that weight-based teasing in adolescence predicted higher BMI and rates of obesity later in life and an increase in binge eating, poor body image, unhealthy weight control measures, and emotional eating. Often, these behaviors correlate with depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, as these behaviors and mental health patterns perpetuate one another.
No doubt these mental health issues inspire many to act, whether the children themselves or the adults who care for them. Often, this leads to a 4-letter word with a lot of promise, but disappointing results: a diet.
Dangers of Diet Culture
It’s so ingrained in our lives that we often don’t realize we’re doing it. And our children are watching.
It may seem innocent enough. Someone at a family party exclaims they’ll have to do extra cardio to burn off all the calories from a decadent meal. Another is talking about going on a restrictive diet to fit into a bathing suit for an upcoming trip. Yet another says they’re being “so bad” because they’re choosing to indulge in a milkshake instead of a salad. All of this seems so normal because we’ve all grown up hearing this type of conversation in our families, in the office, in magazines, on TV, and in passing out in the world.
This collective message stems from the phenomenon commonly referred to as “diet culture”.
To a child, these messages reinforce the belief that it is “good” to be thin and “bad” to be fat. The fixation on size and appearance carries much more weight than the other aspects of physical, psychological, or emotional well-being. Furthermore, restrictive eating patterns often lead to negative consequences, including the typical net gain in weight instead of loss, an unhealthy relationship with food, and the loss of self-esteem.
Many leading experts in nutrition advocate for ditching the moralization of foods and body types, setting aside the notion that appearance and body shape and size are more important than physical, psychological, or emotional well-being, and dismissing the normalization of controlling your body by restricting calories, foods, or food groups.
But undoing these long-held beliefs is not easy…
How to Promote Healthy Relationships with Food
As adults and caretakers, the responsibility of feeding our children rests on our shoulders. But, before we know it, we pass along the torch to the next generation, giving them the autonomy to feed themselves as they learn and grow.
The following tips are gathered from the plethora of articles and activists for ditching diet culture to help children foster diverse palates and healthy relationships with food.
Keep Food Neutral
Avoid assigning descriptive terms like “good”, “bad”, “junk”, or even “healthy” or “unhealthy” to foods or food groups. Food neutrality also extends toward commenting on other people’s meals or food choices. Especially since it’s impossible to know the personal, economic, or health reasons that lead to their decisions. Teach your children that food shaming is never ok.
Avoid “Diet” Talk
Modeling good behavior is of paramount importance when teaching our children about nutrition. Don’t be tempted to express your own frustrations with your own body, comment on other bodies (including praising weight-loss), measure foods by their fat content, and so on.
Honor Physical Diversity
Celebrate what your body can do, rather than belittling it for not fitting in to cultural ideals. Allow your child to grow into the body they are designed to have. Find role models of all shapes and sizes. For older children, monitor which social media accounts they are following to ensure a positive experience online.
You Provide, They Decide
According to Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding, it is the adults who decide what, when, and where meals are served, and children decide how much and whether to eat them. Adults should take care to consistently provide nutritious meals – including whole grains, protein, fruits, vegetables, desserts – considering the likes and dislikes of the child, but also including new foods and a lot of variety.
Slow Down and Experience
Take the time to sit down and enjoy meals together in a peaceful environment. Ask your child questions about new foods they are trying to describe the sensory experience. “How does this food taste?” “What is the texture like?” “Is it cold, wet, hot, crunchy, slimy?” Don’t worry if your child proclaims disgust merely by touching their tongue to a new food, as it might take 10-15 tries before they enjoy it.
Avoid using Food as a Reward or Punishment
This one can be particularly difficult. As many parents (myself included) are tempted to bribe their kids with their favorite food in order to get them to do something we want. Even the old adage, “you can have your treat if you finish your vegetables”, while well-intentioned, teaches children to put certain foods on a pedestal and makes others a chore. This ultimately detracts from the goal of neutrality surrounding food.
Involve Kids in Food Selection and Preparation
Make it fun! Learning how our food is grown and raised establishes a connection between the environment and our plates and fosters a sense of wonder in the mundane.
Take kids along to the grocery store, plant a garden, visit farmer’s markets, or plan a special trip to a local farm to pick seasonal fruits and vegetables. Often these experiences shape children’s relationships
with food in positive ways and offer the added benefits of exercise and sunshine.
It Takes a Village
Children’s attitudes toward food are shaped by the many interactions with the people and culture around them. Sometimes, a little extra help and guidance is warranted.
All families benefit from accurate information surrounding diet and nutrition. All children benefit from feeling safe and loved. From a place of love and acceptance, children feel confident to trust themselves to eat when they’re hungry, stop when they’re full, and to try new things.
If your family needs help with diet and nutrition, or your child is exhibiting signs of mental health issues or disordered eating, it is important to seek help. Find a mental health professional, talk to your doctor, and/or seek out advice from a qualified nutrition therapist.
For more information about how to optimally nourish children of all ages, visit NTI’s 4-part blog series about childhood nutrition. Each post contains great kid-friendly recipes.
For more meal inspiration, check out NTI’s recipe blog.
Remember that diet is just a 4-letter word describing the food and drink we regularly consume. It’s not meant to be temporary, restrictive, unpleasant, or a chore. Food gives us energy, supports our health, and is a source of joy and contentment. Let’s teach our children as such.
About the author: Karyn Lane is a recent graduate of NTI’s Nutrition Therapist Master Program. She finds her chemistry degree a useful tool in her study of holistic nutrition. She also loves to treat her kitchen as a laboratory for new recipes and cooking techniques. You can follow her on Instagram @karyn.aka.klaryn.
About Nutrition Therapy Institute’s Holistic Nutrition Certification
Nutrition Therapy Institute (NTI) is a leader in holistic nutrition education. Since 1999, NTI has provided students with the highest quality in nutrition training by offering comprehensive holistic nutrition courses. Offering online and in-person nutrition course options to help students achieve thriving careers as holistic nutrition therapists. Interested in starting our holistic nutrition courses and earning your holistic nutrition certification? Attend an informational webinar to learn more by signing up HERE.
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