This is the 7th article in a series for helping you eat optimally healthy and make smart wellness choices for your whole family. In this article, we will address how the emotional and mental behavior of kids may be affected by the quality of their diet.

Here are links to the past 6 articles in the series if you missed them:

  1. Why are we so dedicated to disease

  2. The diet-inflammation connection

  3. From Fit to Fat, to Fit

  4. The Preventable Side of Cancer Through Lifestyle Habits

  5. How to Get More Leafy Greens Into Your Diet

  6. Too Young for a Heart Attack

Mental Illness or Lack of Nutrients?

The idea for this article came from the March 2013 issue of Maclean’s magazine that showed a screaming child and beside her the caption: Is she a brat or is she sick? The article went on to say that the medical community will, as of May 2013, be labeling what is considered ordinary childhood behavior (such as tantrums) as a mental illness. In this particular case, a child that exhibits persistent irritability and frequent outbursts (3 or more times a week) can be labeled as having ‘disruptive mood dysregulation disorder’. This diagnosis will now be an official condition found in what is considered the psychiatrist’s bible, the DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I probably don’t have to extrapolate what this means for the potential of medicating children for such diagnoses.

This leads me to wonder if the behavioral issues we see in children have some, if not a lot, to do with the lack of proper nutrition for growing brains. As I stated in past articles of this series, we are a society that is overfed but sadly undernourished. Add to this the mixed messages in the media (especially commercials) or the incredible array of parenting books about what is best for a baby or the ‘right’ diet for growing children, and no wonder parents are confused. Saddled often with misinformation, or simply not knowing, it is always easiest to fall back on familiarity or convenience at the expense of feeding our children consciously and healthfully.

No doubt there is an unprecedented rise in childhood conditions that were once considered rare: obesity, learning disabilities, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and general behavioral issues. This rise also mirrors the rise in adult conditions such as degenerative issues (arthritis, osteoporosis), obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Just as these adult conditions have a strong link to lifestyle and nutritional status, childhood conditions need to be addressed as such, rather than just chalking it up to an inherent problem with the child and attaching a diagnosis that warrants pharmaceutical intervention.

Presenting Generation Carb

One of the greatest challenges I see with children today is that we are raising a generation of ‘carb kids’. What I mean by this is that carbohydrates make up a large portion of a child’s diet, and most of these being refined or processed in some way. Picture if you will a child who is typically fed cereal for breakfast. Cereals score big on convenience for parents and if you watch the commercials, you would think that they are a nutritious start to the morning. But even the seemingly healthiest of cereals are nothing more than a processed grain with some form of sweetener, mostly sugar, added to them. Have you ever wondered why cereals have to be fortified with vitamins? It’s because the grain has been so stripped of nutrients during processing that they have to be added back in.

Cereals do nothing more than spike insulin levels and the child will in a short time experience a drop in insulin, and subsequently energy as well (hyperactivity sometimes being a paradoxical response as the child tries to self-stimulate). A child cannot verbalize but instead may be irritable, act out, or simply crave (and often demand) the next ‘fix’, often in the form of a snack that also has more carbs – crackers, muffins, or cookies. How many times I see mothers appease a cranky child with a handful of crackers, those cheese-flavored fish-shaped crackers, or Cheerios. This same roller-coaster insulin ride happens when consuming a breakfast of waffles, pancakes, bagels, or toast. True there are healthier forms of these foods, such as whole-grain or homemade, but again the issue is more to do with the carbohydrates breaking down into simple sugars in the bloodstream.

‘Carb kids’ are easy to spot. They are the ones that are usually the picky eaters, and the parents often complain that they will only eat waffles, toast, or noodles with the simplest of toppings (like a dollop of butter). These are the children that often eat a meal that is made separately for them since they won’t eat what the rest of the family is eating. They are the ones that often are seen in the cereal aisle demanding a certain cereal. This of course has as much to do with sugar cravings in children and the continuous onslaught of media advertising, as it has with a generation of parents acquiescing to children’s demands with the belief that giving a young child choice is somehow healthy for self-esteem development. I would rather like to believe that it is the parent’s responsibility to make food choices for a young child since the parent ultimately knows what is best.

In the next article of this series, Feeding Kids Right Means You Lead By Example I talk more specifically WHAT some of the healthier options are and strategies on HOW to start incorporating these foods into your child’s (and family’s) diet.