Foods to Help Boost A Child’s Moods (+ Signs Of Nutrient Deficiencies)
By Alyssa Krejci, RD, LD, LMNT
April 27, 2021
I’m going to cut right to the chase … food has the ability to boost your child’s mood (and yours!) – or conversely, the ability to pull mental health in the wrong direction. In a recent Dishing Up Nutrition I loved how the guest, Dr. Korn, a Harvard Medical School-trained traumatologist succinctly shared that you can “change your mood with your food.” She also pointed out that this is a new thought for many, as most have never been taught to make this connection.
Before we get to food, Dr. Korn emphasized the importance of asking yourself “’Am I drinking enough water?’ It sounds simple. But most people are dehydrated. And when we're dehydrated, we're tired; we're depressed. Not only does our skin dry up, but we get headaches.” In short, nothing is functioning well. So, fill up your kiddos water bottle, cheers with your own, and drink up!
After hydration is addressed, it’s onto food. Real food, stocked with essential nutrients that I’ll share below, has the ability to nourish the brain, mind and body. Too often kids (and adults) are eating processed food that lack any nutritional value. Processed foods, which are full of added sugars and damaged fats, will not nourish and support a child’s growing and developing brain and body. They will only hurt it.
That is why at Nutritional Weight & Wellness we always stress real food for good health. To support a child’s growing brain, ability to learn and pay attention, and yes, positive moods, let’s make every bite count with real foods. For more of a backstory, I’ll be including which key nutrients these foods bring to your child’s body: omega-3 fats, fiber, magnesium, iron, and zinc.
Let’s dig in, pun intended!
First, what are signs that kids are deficient in the essentials I just mentioned? If a child is eating a Standard American Diet (SAD) it’s common to see deficiencies show up as the following symptoms:
- Low levels of magnesium can be linked to more hyperactivity and distractibility.
- Low levels of iron often lead to poor immunity, low energy, tiredness, and trouble concentrating.
- Low levels of zinc can cause slow growth and development, inattentiveness, and lower alertness. It can also result in hair loss and a decreased ability to taste food.
- Low levels of omega-3 can potentially include skin irritation and dryness, dry eyes, hair changes and increased risk of depression. Our brains are made up of nearly 60% fat, just an interesting fact I like to share with clients when explaining how important quality fats are.
- Low fiber intake can lead to constipation and fiber helps support healthy bacteria in the gut. Gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, all of which play an important role in mood.
Now onto the good news: there are many, many, many real food options that are delicious and give your child the building blocks for good energy, stable moods, the ability to focus, and be the best learners and growers they can be. So what are those foods?
Protein & Dairy Products:
- Salmon: Cold-water fish are a great boost of omega-3 fats. Omega-3 fats are “essential”, meaning they are not made in our bodies. The only realistic way to increase levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the body is to get them from foods (and supplements).
- Beef: A favorite at my house, beef is great source for both iron and zinc, which helps proper growth and development in those growing brains.
- Chicken & Turkey (especially the dark meat): A tasty source of iron that most kids won’t protest. These Healthy Chicken Nuggets are a favorite with my young kids.
- Eggs: Scrambled, in an omelet, or hard-boiled in devilled eggs, whatever your favorite form is, eggs are an easy way to get that iron in. Plus, if you buy the ones with omega-3s added in, that’s another essential fatty acid boost. Our Salmon Deviled Eggs are a fun twist.
- Full-Fat Dairy Products: I’m talking full-fat whole milk, plain yogurt or cottage cheese, these have a trifecta of nutrients with magnesium, zinc and omega-3 if fortified with Omega-3 DHA. A fortified food has extra nutrients added to it or has nutrients added (like Omega-3 DHA Algal oil in milk) that are not normally there.
- Oysters: These are the best source of zinc … and probably the least desirable to kiddos, sorry! I wanted to throw it on the list as a bonus if you, the grown-up in the family, love oysters.
Nuts and Seeds:
- Seeds (Chia Seeds, Hemp Seeds, Pumpkin Seeds, Milled Ground Flaxseed): You can throw these into meals, hide in smoothies or even puddings (my daughter plays in the kitchen and makes a berry jam (thawing frozen berries) with chia seeds, to top on toast at breakfast). Seeds are a great way to get more fiber, magnesium and plant-based omega-3s into your child’s day. Our Overnight Strawberry Chia Pudding recipe is another great option!
- Nuts (Walnuts, Almonds, Brazil Nuts, Pecans, Pistachios, etc): A source of fiber and magnesium, which calms the muscles and nerves. Walnuts are also an excellent source of omega-3 fat.
- Potatoes (With Skin On): Loaded with magnesium.
- Whole Grains (Buckwheat, Oats, Quinoa, Wild Rice): A trifecta of magnesium, iron and zinc. Our Wild Rice Meatballs are so good you’ll want to make a double batch to freeze for later. Bonus you’re getting the wild rice and the ground beef into kiddos!
- Beans (Black Beans, Pinto, etc.), Peas and Lentils: excellent source of fiber plus contains good amounts of magnesium, zinc and iron. Make these Baked Beans for your next BBQ and adults and children alike will all get a healthy serving of magnesium, zinc and iron.
Veggie & Fruit Carbs:
- Dark Leafy Greens (Spinach, Kale, Collard Greens and Arugula): High in iron. Psst, you can hide huge handfuls of spinach in a smoothie and it doesn’t add any taste.
- Avocados: One-third of a medium avocado (about 50 grams) contributes close to 20 different vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients which includes a good source of fiber. Top your homemade taco salad (grabs beef from the list above, full-fat cheese and leafy greens) with homemade guacamole and your meal is full of nutrients for growing kiddos.
I hope you found this list helpful, and just by picking one or two foods to feed to your kids this week you’re making a great step! If however, you are dealing with some specific health issues or behavioral concerns with your child, or are just overwhelmed by these tips, I’d encourage you to make a virtual Zoom appointment with me or one of my fellow nutritionists and dietitians. We’re here to help make the step into eating real food less overwhelming than it sometimes tends to be. As a busy parent, let us make your job easier.
For more information on children’s health & nutrition, check out these resources:
- Read: Balanced Nutrition for Focused Kids
- Inspire: “Two weeks into Zane’s new eating plan, I casually asked him how he felt. ‘I feel alive for the first time in my life,’ he replied. I was floored. He continued to say, ‘I feel normal. This is what normal feels like.’ He wasn’t depressed, anxious or worried.” - Zane’s (A Sixth Grader) Story
- Online Class: Foods to Build Happy, Focused Kids