With the steadily rising tide of mental health issues in children I’ve now been writing about for years, should we be surprised by a piece of recent research that clearly says dietary interventions can help with depression. “There is strong epidemiological evidence that poor diet is associated with depression.” The first line of the abstract of this piece of research makes it clear, mental health issues are preventable with diet and lifestyle changes, are these being discussed with parents at all I wonder?

In a national survey in 2017, it’s clear that the older the age group the higher the increase in mental health disorders happening. We all know teenagers at some point are like herding cats! But we need to take note of this research as adults to actually work on making changes earlier because the stats show that depression is happening in 0.3% of 5-10 year olds, which gradually increases in each age range to 4.8% in the 17–19 year-old age bracket. They estimate in the research this is about 200,000 children in total in the UK. That’s not a small amount and more worryingly if this isn’t resolved in childhood then clearly this moves into adulthood.

We don’t like to consider a divide but there is with children in poorer regions of the UK being more likely to be given a prescription for antidepressants. Children on antidepressants is unthinkable really, particularly if it’s preventable with diet and lifestyle changes in some cases. There is clearly a link with a lesser financial ability to feed a child a good quality diet but also to have access to better quality foods. In the UK we have in the past decade unfortunately moved into an era of having food banks the number of people using them is high and the number of children who have moved into poverty has increased. Therefore I can’t see these mental health issues that are linked with diet resolving if we are not a nation who can feed our poorest children properly.

I see a large number of girls who are calorie conscious and reducing the foods they are eating to extremely low amounts in the day to stay thin, who then months or a year later become depressed. Should we be surprised, because the body needs nutrition to grow properly, and by reducing their calories they are sadly reducing the nutrients that enable them to grow and function, we have to consider the lack of nutrients that their body needed during a key time of growth as a potential factor in their depression.

Most adults will recognise when their diet is affecting them, but for children who have never experienced what good health or a good diet is, how would they be able to identify if their diet is affecting them at all? They just wouldn’t! Children now have a highly-processed diet, over 40% of their meals are often made from pre-packaged food that they take for granted. The biscuits or health bar after school, the fast cereal for breakfast, the lunchtime filled with a take out from the local shop, chips, wedges, chicken curry, scones, packets of crisps are all that our children are eating my experience shows. Food made for children by manufacturers is often riddled with sugar, sweeteners, and food additives, with many children drinking at least 1 fizzy drink a day. These drinks contain the sugar, sweetener, sodium and some of them caffeine, and of course, 1 fizzy drink tends to become more over time.

Children we know go through growth spurts, they suddenly start eating everything out of your cupboards, and you can’t keep up with their hunger levels. You wonder where your food has gone when you look in your fridge. Suddenly they are an inch or two taller within a matter of weeks, and their clothes no longer fit, suddenly the higher intake of food makes sense! This takes nutrients to do, children are resource hungry, and will eat whatever is easiest. Depending on their age they won’t be able or skilled enough to cook and are dependent on what is given to them. It’s not their fault it’s ours for making junk and heavily processed foods so readily available to them, and I find this is mainly because we are short on the time needed to prepare enough natural snacks and nutrient-rich meals for them throughout the day. I recognise that mostly they are affected by the lack of time parents have in their lives to just be able to do everything that is now on their plate. But children’s health is a casualty of this as much as the adults are I can see, and they are being brought up in a paradigm of food that would be unrecognisable just 50 years ago.

Our children are increasingly sedentary and we know that exercise helps with mental health and management of stress, why isn’t this being encouraged as an intervention for depression?

I’m constantly told how hard it is to get a quality balanced school dinner, I don’t know if this is the case because I don’t work with schools, but I do know that many children are given money for lunch. This leaves them choosing highly processed foods that are high in starchy carbohydrates, hydrogenated fats, and sugars. These foods affect their performance at school, blood glucose imbalance cause mental health issues, and foods rich in sugars are likely to also cause behavioural issues. I’m surprised that with attainment targets being so focused on, that schools are not paying more attention to what they are feeding their children in the middle of the school day.

Sleep is an incredibly important part of good health, but I’m constantly told how difficult it is to get children off their devices at night, why are they being left with them in the first place? Would you let a stranger into your child’s bedroom? No, but the internet and devices are left with children unsupervised, and then are used into the night affecting their sleep. The blue light from the device that is emitted keeps you awake for longer and longer. I’m told how people can’t get to sleep anymore, I can see that it’s not just from stress and worry but also from being on their devices just before bedtime. Also, research is showing that those children with increased screen time of 7 hours or more showed premature thinning of the cortex, now this is still to be researched further, but that is clearly going to impact on long term brain health. Before you think, that’s not so bad my kids aren’t on their screens for 7 hours, children who were on their screens for 2 hours a day which is conceivable for most children now, had decreased scores in language tests, and those who were up at night on their devices were more likely to suffer from depression.

We often feel that these health issues are beyond us, but mostly they come down to a disconnect from the natural order of things. The closer to nature you get your child’s diet, the far better their health and performance at school is going to be. It’s worth spending the time to get this right because trends in the use of antidepressants in children are increasing.

Anyway, we dice and slice this, we still have increasing numbers of children being given prescription drugs for depression when dietary and lifestyle interventions could be a solution.

  • Turn the wifi off, and restrict the time your child spends on their devices.
  • Use ‘old fashioned’ books and games and interact with them.
  • Get a bike and get them out off-road cycling.
  • No devices in the bedroom and switch off at least 2 hours before bed.
  • If this isn’t an option make sure the device goes onto night time mode which removes most of the blue light.
  • Porridge is a far better option with lots of mixed seeds, yoghurt, and berries than most children s cereals.
  • Eggs are great, omelette with vegetables, eggs and rye bread toast, scrambled with grilled tomatoes and mushrooms.
  • Buckwheat flakes or quinoa flakes can be used as an alternative to oats.
  • Energy balls can be made very quickly in a food processor and stored in the fridge, and are a far better choice than a flapjack or biscuit after school.
  • Mango, pineapple or peach fingers are a better choice than a packet of sweets. Blueberries are like little sweets.
  • Nuts are a good choice, use a variety.
  • Baked crisps are a better choice than fried. Use your own salsa, hummus or guacamole dips to reduce the number of crisps eaten and increase the wider variety of nutrients consumed.
  • Natural organic yoghurt is a far better choice than children’s or highly processed and sweetened versions with crispy bits in the corners of them! Add your own fruit slices or puree, and seeds.
  • A homemade smoothie is a better choice than a biscuit or sweet dessert type snack and very quick to make, add vegetables such as cucumber, celery, avocado, and if you can get away with it spinach or kale. Seeds such as chia seeds are packed with omega 3, and zinc both needed for growing children.
  • Add a variety of vegetables to dishes, ensuring a rainbow is eaten each day, children will always want sweeter foods, so train their palates early on by giving them a variety cooked and prepared in various ways.
  • Homemade ice cream with coconut milk, banana or cashews can put you back in charge of how much sugar is in each bowl and can make it a far healthier snack.
  • Buckwheat pancakes with fruit and yoghurt are a good snack and you can make the batter in advance and store in the fridge.
  • Soda streams let you make fizzy drinks but instead of the syrup, you can add a good squeeze of orange to them to flavour to help wean off sweet fizzy drinks. I’m not keen on fizzy drinks but these can be good stepping stones to helping change the palate of the child.
  • Get your child outside into the sunlight, their circadian rhythm is set by the light, one of the most underestimated parts of health. Get them walking to school or cycling if it’s safe for them to.
  • Enable them to get a good nights sleep, this is one of the most important things you can do.

References

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/research/research-funded-by-nimh/research-initiatives/adolescent-brain-cognitive-development-abcd-study.shtml

https://ebmh.bmj.com/content/22/3/129

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