June 18, 2024

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Little girl who is a picky eater and refuses to eat healthy meal sits at a kitchen counter. (Photo via Getty Images)

According to a 2021 study published in the BMC Nutrition Journal, 70 per cent of children ages four to eight reported consuming less than the recommended five servings of vegetables and fruits a day. (Photo via Getty Images)

Ever wondered why your kid’s mood swings are as unpredictable as the weather? It might just boil down to what’s on their plate.

Yahoo Canada spoke to a dietitian about the role nutrients play in children’s behaviours and if a nutritional deficiency could be why they act out — which can include mood disturbances, tantrums or sleep issues.

Can a poor diet contribute to your child’s mood?

According to a 2023 Nutrients study, children exposed to a less healthy diet were more susceptible to psychiatric symptoms like anxiety and depression later in life.

Abbey Sharp, a Toronto-based dietitian and the creator of food blog Abbey’s Kitchen, said there are so many different nutrients that are essential for the brain to function properly — and a lack of some can lead to changes in mood or cognitive abilities.

“A healthy diet is so important for healthy behaviour,” said Sharp. “A balanced diet that includes fibre, protein and healthy fats are all going to help regulate our blood sugars, and that’s going to help to prevent those ups and downs, spikes and crashes associated with sugar.”

More research also links diets high in processed foods, sugars and unhealthy fats to increased risk of emotional instability in both children and adults. “A balanced diet is also important for helping support gut health,” said Sharp, who added around 50 per cent of dopamine is synthesized in the gut.

Two boys eating hamburgers with fries and milk. (Photo via Getty Images)

Toronto-based dietician Abbey Sharp said kids tend to gravitate towards carbohydrate-based foods. (Photo via Getty Images)

What nutrients contribute to a better mood?

Sharp noted there are a few main nutritional deficiencies that might impact childrens’s needs specifically:

  • Iron

  • Omega-3s

  • Zinc

  • Vitamin D

  • Magnesium

  • B Vitamins

Sharp said one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in kids, who are notoriously picky eaters, is iron. It’s crucial for hemoglobin, which brings oxygen to the brain. “A deficiency can lead to difficulty concentrating and overall well-being,” she shared.

Omega-3 fatty acids, which can be found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines, or in flaxseeds and chia seeds, are also important. “They’re imperative for brain health and development in young kids and infants,” said Sharp, who shared diets low in omega-3 fatty acids are associated with higher risks of depression, mood disorders and decreased cognitive function. “Plus, they’re important for regulating neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin which are our feel-good hormones.”

Zinc, found in meat, fish and seafood, is a potential nutrient in anxiety reduction. Sharp said it helps to synthesize certain neurotransmitters that can influence our body’s response to stress. A deficiency can lead to irritability, she added.

“A lot of children are low on vitamin D,” Sharp said, adding that it’s an important mood regulator. “As well as magnesium. Magnesium has a calming effect on the nervous system and a deficiency can increase restlessness, anxiety and sleep issues.” Magnesium can be found in greens, dry beans, whole grains, nuts, wheat and seeds, among other foods.

Overhead view of a large group of healthy raw food for flexitarian mediterranean diet. The composition includes salmon, chicken breast, canned tuna, cow steak, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, dairy products, olive oil, eggs and legumes. (Photo via Getty Images)

A balanced diet is also responsible for supporting gut health, said Sharpe. Around 50 per cent of dopamine is synthesized in the gut. (Photo via Getty Images)

Lastly, Sharp said B vitamins, like B12, B6 or folate, are also important for healthy behaviour in children. Some foods high in B vitamins include liver, poultry, eggs, leafy greens, nutritional yeast and dairy products. “All of these help to regulate those neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. So if we’re deficient, you might see some fatigue, mood swings, irritability, etc.,” said Sharp.

“When you think about the kinds of foods that kids — especially picky kids — tend to gravitate towards, it’s largely carbohydrate-based foods. So we have to think about all the nutrients they might miss out on if they’re not getting healthy or adequate amounts of healthy fats, fibres and protein.”

On the flip side, can mood impact food choices?

How your kid might be feeling can also have an affect on their food choices. A 2023 study published by the National Institute of Health shows emotions greatly influence food choices and eating behaviours, especially in children. Negative emotions like stress, anxiety and sadness have been associated with unhealthy eating habits like eating calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods.

Another 2023 study conducted by Aston University showed children as young as four years old eat 79 per cent more calories when they are bored, compared to when they are in a neutral mood.

“If children are eating this many more calories during one instance of boredom induced in a laboratory (a four-minute period), given that boredom is a commonly experienced emotion in children, the potential for excess calorie intake in response to being bored across one day, one week or one year is potentially very significant in a food abundant environment,” said lead researcher Dr. Rebecca Stone.

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