Nutrition can be challenging to understand. Nutrition and kids, even more so. There are so many things to consider - it can often be overwhelming. You want your child to grow and thrive, but you only have so much time and effort to put into nutrition. Often this can be made more complicated by picky eaters and kids who loves something one week and will not touch it the next. To make it worse, nutrition advice often gets divided into camps and everyone seems to believe their camp is best for everyone. Ever met someone following a vegan diet? Gluten-Free? Paleolithic?
The truth is nutritional science is still young, and while we know some basic truths for sure (example - vegetables are in fact good for you) scientists are still uncovering the details in terms of which diet is BEST or BEST FOR AN INDIVIDUAL. So what I’ve done for you in this guide is waded through what we know about nutrition, and what we know about anxiety and put together my best recommendations. These are meant to help you navigate the world of nutrition and make better choices for your family. What they are not meant to do is create guilt, shame, or stress. So take what you can from these guidelines but please use them as just that, guidelines, not rigid rules.
Before I get into the recommendations themselves I want to explain WHY I’m making them. If you’re the type of person that wants to know the details the next few paragraphs are for you. If you are in a hurry, or would rather skip the nutritional science, feel free to skip ahead a few paragraphs. The nutritional recommendations below are there because they support one or more of the following principles: supporting a health microbiome; creating a balanced blood sugar response; ensuring appropriate nutrients for building the nervous system; and/or avoiding common nutrient deficiencies that cause anxiety.
Although we are still uncovering the details, it has become apparent that our microbiome (the bacteria living in our intestines) have a huge impact on many aspects of our health, including our mood. These bacteria can make neurotransmitters, and can communicate with the brain via the enteric nervous system (our nervous system in the gut). While we often think of our brain sending information to our bodies, when it comes to the digestive tract 80% of the nerves between it and the brain actually go from the digestive tract TO the brain(1). Probiotic supplements (good bacteria in a pill) have been shown to be beneficial for anxiety(2). It makes sense then to support a natural healthy microbiome with our diets. We can do this by increasing foods that contain healthy bacteria (probiotics), including foods that feed the probiotics (prebiotics), and reducing food for pathogenic or harmful bacteria / yeast (sugar).
The next principle, creating a balanced blood sugar response, is something that is important for many people, but not always considered when discussing anxiety. This is unfortunate because individuals with anxiety are more likely to experience blood sugar imbalance (3). With an impaired response to the carbohydrates in their foods, people with anxiety may experience reactive hypoglycemia. This is because the body creates too much insulin in response to sugar and an individuals blood sugar goes too low, creating symptoms like shaking, increased heart rate, and nervousness. Many people experience this as anxiety. By balancing blood sugar, individuals can feel more calm. In fact, a study examining Glycemic Index (how quickly your blood sugar goes up) of breakfast foods and mood in healthy children found that a low glycemic index breakfast was associated with feeling more alert, more happy, and less nervous (4). Imagine the difference in children with anxiety who may be even more sensitive! I want to stress than in my practice I have seen anxiety completely resolve by changing diet; in these cases the body’s response to carbohydrates was the ROOT CAUSE OF THE ANXIETY.
The last two principles I’m going to speak about together because they both come down to getting enough nutrients (not just calories, but nutrients) from your diet. This is important for both macronutrients like proteins and fats, and micronutrients like B vitamins and Magnesium. There are things you need to get from your food because they are essential. This means your body cannot make it on its own. If you do not consume enough of these building blocks, the thing your body is trying to make just doesn’t get made. You need amino acids from protein to build neurotransmitter. You need long chain omega-3 fatty acids to act as insulators to the wires your brain. The other important thing to consider is that if you are not getting enough of a nutrient your body you may have symptoms caused by that nutrient deficiency. A lack of vitamin B12 can cause numbness and tingling, both common symptoms in anxiety. A lack of magnesium is a known cause of anxiety, this is concerning because nutritional surveys consistently demonstrate that dietary magnesium is usually below the recommended daily allowance (5).
And so, with these principles in mind, here are the Do’s and Don’t for Feeding Your Anxious Child.
Do Include A Variety of Protein Sources
Protein provides essential amino acids, the building blocks of neurotransmitters, compounds your brain uses to communicate. In addition to it’s essential role including protein at meals and snacks decreases the calories from carbohydrates which improves the glycemic index of the meal, helping to balance blood sugars. It’s best to include a variety of protein sources including more plant proteins (like legumes) and less red meats.
- Beans (black beans, kidney beans, chick peas)
- Tofu, Tempeh, Soy Milk
- Greek Yogurt (unsweetened)
- Fish and Seafood
- Chicken and other poultry
- Beef, Lamb and Pork
- Clean protein powders (whey, soy, hemp)
Do Include Sources of Healthy Fats
Our brain is made up of a lot of fat! It’s important to make sure we are building it with the best (and least inflammatory) fats as possible.
- Fatty Fish (Salmon/Trout, Mackerel, Anchovy, Sardines, Herring)
- Olives and Olive Oil
- Raw Nuts and Seeds
- Coconut, Coconut Oil
- Organic Full Fat Dairy Products
Don’t Include Processed Sugar
As most people know, processed sugar is devoid of nutrients. It also has a high glycemic index. While it’s obvious to exclude or limit things like candy and cookies there is a lot of sugar hidden in prepared foods like pasta sauces. It is important to read labels and look for words like sugar, cane sugar, dehydrate cane juice, glucose, fructose, glucose-fructose, sucrose, dextrose, maltodextrin, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, and corn syrup solids are some of the more common words that mean “added sugar.” The labels you want to check most are:
- Candy, Fruit Snacks, Chocolate
- Cookies, Cakes, Muffins, “Breakfast Cookies”
- Breakfast Cereals
- Granola Bars
- Yogurt / Yogurt Products (especially kids yogurts)
- Pop, Fruit Drinks
- Pasta Sauce, Canned Soups
- Condiments (Ketchup, Peanut butter) and Salad Dressings
Do Include Lots of Fibre
Fibre reduces the glycemic index of our food. It also serves as a prebiotic to support a healthy microbiome.
- Vegetables (Fresh or Frozen)
- Fruits (Fresh or Frozen)
- Whole Grains (brown rice, steel cut oats, polenta, spelt berries)
- Seeds (Hemp, Chia, Sesame, Quinoa)
Do Include Fermented Foods
Fermented foods are a natural source of probiotics that help support a healthy microbiome.
- Yogurt, Kefir
- Cultured Vegetables (Sauerkraut, Kimchee)
- Miso, Tempeh
- Salt pickles and brine-cured olives
- Apple Cider Vinegar
Don’t Include Preservatives
Preservatives are meant to kill bacteria. From a food safety / longevity standpoint it seems like a great idea. But when you consider the microbiome suddenly preservatives are not a good choice. Even if they are safe for humans, these compounds are designed to kill bacteria! And so it is important to limit these foods to support a healthy microbiome. Some major offenders include:
- Processed Meat (Hot Dogs, Bacon, Lunch Meats, Smoked Fish)
- Potato Chips
- Soft Drinks
- Dried Fruit
- Commercial Breads and Bread products
Do Provide High Amounts of Magnesium
It's important to prevent magnesium deficiency. In addition most of these whole foods are good for the microbiome and your blood sugar balance. When possible, choose organic vegetables, as they are generally higher in magnesium due to conservation of soil minerals compared with conventional farming practices.
- Organic Leafy Greens (spinach and swiss chard)
- Nuts and Seeds (pumpkin seeds, almonds)
- Cheese and Yogurt
- Beans and Legumes (black beans)
- Some Fruits (Avocado, Fig, Banana)
Don’t Restrict or Vilify Food
While you as a parent are responsible for providing healthy choices, it is also important to model healthy food relationships. Unless your child is very ill after eating something, making something a “never” food is generally a bad idea. Cultivate an enjoyment of healthy food and a respect for all foods. Making something forbidden can create an unhealthy relationship with that food. Children with anxiety are at higher risk for eating disorders in their teens and twenties. Teach them to enjoy food and to eat mindfully.
Looking for some meal inspiration that meets these guidelines? Download my “Lunches for Anxious Tummies” for 18 School, Kid, and Naturopath Approved Recipes.
- Browning and Travagli. Central Nervous System Control of Gastrointestinal Motility and Secretion and Modulation of Gastrointestinal Functions. Compr Physiol. 2014 Oct; 4(4): 1339-1368 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4858318/
- Pirbaglou et al. Probiotic supplementation can positively impact anxiety and depression symptoms: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Nutrition Research. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Joel_Katz/publication/304402610_Probiotic_supplementation_can_positively_affect_anxiety_and_depressive_symptoms_a_systematic_review_of_randomized_controlled_trials/links/578f74a908ae81b44671c97d.pdf
- Zhou et al. The Prevalence of impaired glucose regulation in anxiety disorder patients and the relationship with hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid axis activity. J Evid Based Med. 2016 Aug 29. [Abstract] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27792263
- Micha, Rogers and Nelson. Glyceamic index and glyceamic load of breakfast predict cognitive function and mood in school children: a randomized controlled trial. Br J Nutr. 2011 Nov;106(10):1552-61. [Abstract] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21736777
- Gaby. Nutritional Medicine. 2011. Concord NH. Magnesium. Ch 27. Pg 136.