My son has a tendency to lean more towards a "junk food" diet, and I've noticed his mood has been relatively negative as of late. Does junk food affect more than just physical health? How does mental health get affected? What sort of diet should we consider implementing?
Parents often ask me whether food affects mental as well as physical health. It certainly does. Despite all of the changes in school food menus, and in advertising; despite all the changes in baby and toddler foods and the education about what foods are good for you, many children of all ages still yearn for “junk food” and sugar. If they don’t get it at home, they will try to find it elsewhere. Let’s be real. Genetically we are designed to survive and sugar and fats give us quick energy, and they taste good. It takes discipline for most adults to eat a well-balanced diet. Children haven’t yet developed that self-discipline, and even the most fastidious parent occasionally caves on food issues.
Now most adults know how they feel after a junk food meal high in fat, sugar and salt: bloated, tired and “stuffed”. Children feel the same way, but they don’t necessarily make the connection. Adults know that the after-effects of the occasional junk food binge will pass, probably leaving them with the higher temptation to eat more of the same. However, discipline keeps most of us from doing so. Most of your kids haven’t made the connection so, if allowed, they will keep eating those tasty empty calories and then you might observe, in addition to the well-known “sugar high” hyperactivity, the following mental effects: mood swings, decreased concentration and focus, lethargy, loss of interest in normal activities.
What can a parent do?
Set a good example. If you eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins your child will eventually follow suit. My wife used to frustrate our daughter by checking the nutrition labels on most things she purchased. But as an older teen, our daughter started to do the same thing.
Practice and preach moderation. Admit that you like the occasional comfort food. Recognize that your children will also. Children I have seen from homes that ban sugar and junk food often rebel by gorging on it as soon as they can make it to Wawa or the college cafeteria.
Take advantage of the better foods now available for infants and toddlers. You can get organic items, sugar free items and much cleaner food. If your child gets a taste for these early on, the chances are better that he or she will keep that taste or return to it later.
Please do not use food as a reward or withhold it as punishment. Either of these options put too much emotional energy around food and eating and can be direct lines to any of the eating disorders.
See what your child’s natural eating patterns are. While children benefit from a structured eating time, see if your child is hungrier at one mealtime than at others. Accommodate this pattern whenever possible.
Don’t force food. Too many members of the “clean plate club” are now lifetime members of diet plans.
Never belittle your child’s body or weight. Children grow and develop at different rates. Genetics do count. Help your child to accept how he or she looks. Don’t use a “celebrity” model unless you want to later have to seek treatment for an eating disorder based on a distorted or delusional body image.
- Eat leisurely, relaxed, enjoyable meals with your child whenever possible. Make mealtime a happy time, not a time to discuss problems or have conflict.