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February 5, 2023

Tips on Setting Good Habits for Your Children’s Mental Health

by Jovanna Orozco, MS, RDN, LDN

Mental health disorders have usually been discussed about adolescents and young adults, with about half of all adolescents having experienced a mental health disorder at some point in time.1

However, as we know with most things, mental health practices begin at a young age. It is important for parents to understand what can affect a child’s mental health, including nutrition and lifestyle choices, and what they can do to minimize mental health disorders as much as possible.

Let’s discuss ways to set good healthy habits to improve children’s mental health starting at a young age!

The relationship between the gut and mood

Studies show that what we eat can have a positive or negative effect on our mood, depending on our food choices. One Harvard doctor compares the foods we eat to types of fuel: the brain works best when given premium fuel (i.e. nourishing food) and starts to become damaged if given low-premium fuel (i.e. low quality food choices).2 One way in which the brain can be affected by poor food choices is through the nervous system.

The gut is active in providing our body and brain with the fuel that it needs. Without fuel, our brain does not work as well as it should. In addition, one neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger created by the nervous system), serotonin – which helps regulate mood and increase happiness, is also made in the gut. In this case, it makes sense that what we eat can affect our mood!

In addition, the production of serotonin is also affected by the bacteria in our gut (the microbiome). The gut microbiome affects what comes through the lining of our intestines, how well we absorb nutrients and affects the communication between the gut and brain through nerve endings. If the microbiome is not as healthy as it could be, then mood can be impacted. We also know that the types of food that we eat can affect how much good and bad bacteria we have in our intestines.

So, what does a good diet for optimal mental health look like?

Studies comparing a traditional Western diet (what we eat here in the U.S.) vs diets like Mediterranean or Japanese found that the risk of depression and other mental disorders is lower when compared to the Western diet.2 This is likely due to higher amounts of fruits and vegetables, unprocessed grains, fish, and lower amounts of meat and dairy. We know that some of these foods, known as prebiotics, feed the good bacteria in our intestines. These diets also tend to avoid processed and refined foods, like fast foods, which then helps bad bacteria to grow. Scientists believe this can greatly affect our mood and energy levels, through increased inflammation and a lower production of the happy chemicals.

What about probiotics? Of course, we strongly suggest encouraging a wide variety of foods that can help feed the good bacteria in our guts – for example, cultured yogurts and fermented foods. One study showed improvement in social anxiety among young adults who consumed yogurt, kefir, miso soup, sauerkraut, pickles, and kimchi, among other foods.3 However, probiotics for children may also be helpful if your child tends to have gut issues, which could affect the brain. recommends SmartyPants Kids Probiotic Complete as one of their top picks.4

What else can affect my child’s mental health?

Both adequate physical activity and sleep have been found to improve one’s mental health status. It is recommended that children and adolescents between the ages of 6 to 17 years old get about 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous movement every day – anything that gets their heart pumping.5 Most adolescents do not tend to meet this goal, which is serious, as studies show that even a light amount of activity is linked to lower rates of depression and anxiety when they grow older.6 We recommend starting small and encouraging any kind of movement, whether it be walking, biking, dancing, or sports!

In addition, sleep is important for the body and brain to rest and recover, especially among growing children. Children’s brains are especially sensitive to lack of adequate sleep, which can result in irregular mood and behavioral problems, but can also worsen symptoms if already diagnosed with a mental health disorder.7 The National Sleep Foundation recommends 10 to 13 hours for preschoolers, 9 to 11 hours for school-aged children and 8 to 10 hours for adolescents. Ways to improve sleep include having consistent sleep and wake times (even on the weekends), minimizing screen time prior to bedtime, limiting or avoiding caffeine, and setting up a soothing, dark environment to prepare the body and brain for sleep.


Our team of Registered Dietitians can help you and your families set healthy habits for overall physical AND mental health. Browse our website or call 919.237.1337, option 4 to learn more.



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