Most parents have experienced temper tantrums, mood swings and the whole shebang that comes with dealing with children. It’s common to see a child going from excited to sulky to happy to argumentative, and all of that… in minutes.
Honestly, every parent has, at some time or other, without a second thought, used food to bribe, soothe and uplift a child’s mood. But why do we unconsciously do that, and what role does food play in a child’s mood?
Food is intrinsically intertwined with emotions. Food is a primal need as it is essential for sustaining life. Therefore, eating is a basic instinct, and the absence of food can have severe physical and psychological consequences. Think about it… have you ever been hangry…a portmanteau of the words “hungry” and “angry” and used to describe a state of irritability and bad temper caused by hunger?
Food and Mood connection
On a physiological level, food can stimulate the release of hormones, such as oxytocin and serotonin, creating powerful emotional states. Additionally, food is often linked to memories and experiences from our past, which can trigger a variety of emotions. It also has the ability to affect an individual’s mood, energy level, and even ability to concentrate. These factors collectively make food an incredibly powerful tool for expressing, understanding and managing emotions.
And that’s why it is possible to use food to positively manage a child’s moods. Giving them the right food at the right time can help boost energy, improve mood and focus, and overall mental well-being.
“Mood Hacking” your child’s diet
Screen your child’s diet for mood-depleting foods, remove them from the diet, and add mood-lifting foods.
The Mood Depleters:
- High-sugar foods and foods high in saturated fats like bakery products, cookies, ready-to-eat cakes and sweets.
- Processed foods like chips, namkeens, and sweet buns, ready to fry and eat savoury bites.
- Artificial flavours and colours found in candies, carbonated beverages, fruit juice powders and colourful cakes and bakery products.
Studies have found that diets high in sugar, saturated fat, processed foods, artificial colours, and flavourings may increase aggression, restlessness, and attention deficit. High-sugar foods can cause sugar rushes followed by sugar crashes characterised by mood swings.
On the other hand, diets high in fruits, vegetables, and fibre have been linked to improved mood, mental health, and better cognitive functioning.
The Mood Lifters:
01. A medley of colourful fruits and vegetables
Research has shown that apart from keeping the tummy full and mood cheerful thanks to the fibre in them, phytochemicals from this food group are also mood-boosters.
i. Lutein is a carotenoid found in dark leafy greens, and some fruits, such as oranges and kiwis, may help to improve mood and reduce levels of anxiety and depression.
ii. Beta-carotene is another carotenoid found in orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, that may help to reduce depression and promote a positive mood.
iii. Quercetin is a flavonoid found in onions, apples, kale, and cranberries. Studies have shown that quercetin can help reduce anxiety and improve mood.
02. Regular balanced meals and nutritious snacks.
A well-balanced diet that provides a wide range of nutrients can help tick the right boxes. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, chia seeds, walnuts and flaxseeds are known to reduce feelings of depression. At the same time, Vitamin B6 helps to regulate sleep, reduce tiredness, and improve alertness. Oats, wheatgerm, bananas and peanuts are some of the sources of this vitamin. Iron is essential for energy production and maintaining steady moods, and magnesium found in dals, nuts, seeds, dark green leafy veggies, and whole grains helps relax the mind and body.
03. Fermented foods
The gut feeling exists!! Recent research has indicated that the gut has a huge role to play in mental well-being. Keeping the gut healthy can keep your child happy, so do include fermented foods like buttermilk, curd, idlis, dosas and konjees in their diet.
This is one of the most underrated mood lifters. Often, a hangry kid is just thirsty! Kids are notorious for not drinking adequate fluids. Cool down a cranky kid with a glass of cool water.
It’s not just about what they eat…
Parents and caregivers are critical in helping children develop healthy eating habits and emotional intelligence.
- Create happy memories for children around food.
- Stay clear of topics that can lead to conflict and arguments while eating together at the dining table.
- Celebrate healthy food.
- Involve kids in putting together small dishes they can be proud of, such as a fruit or veggie salad or a fruit popsicle.
- Do not use chocolates, ice creams, or cakes to reward good behaviour. Likewise, don’t deprive a child of a meal as a punishment for bad behaviour.
- Get them to move! Post-pandemic, a lot of children are happy to play games online. Move it offline. Physical activity helps a child maintain a positive mental state. Moving their bodies can help reduce stress, boost mood and improve their ability to handle and manage their emotions.
Finally, parents should keep an eye out for the signs and symptoms of childhood depression, such as changes in behaviour, sleeping patterns, and eating habits. If you suspect your child may be experiencing depression, it’s essential to seek help from a qualified mental health professional.
Dr. Sripriya Venkiteswaran (Ph D. Nutritional Sciences)
Head of Content, Cuddles Institute of Clinical Nutrition
- Vuksanovic, J. et al. (2018) ‘Effects of lutein on mental health: A systematic review’, Nutrition & Metabolism, 15(1), p. 28.
- Rasool, M. et al. (2018) ‘Clinical implication of beta-carotene in depression’, Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, 99, pp. 599-606.
- Bhakta, S. et al. (2018) ‘Quercetin: A natural compound with potential antidepressant activity’, International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 19(7), p. 1857.
- Mood Food: 9 Foods That Can Really Boost Your Spirits Last accessed on 22 Feb 2023
- Firth J, Gangwisch JE, Borisini A, Wootton RE, Mayer EA. Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing? BMJ. 2020 Jun 29;369:m2382.