Is Food Making Our Children Anxious?

by | May 20, 2023 | Food Facts, What To Eat

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You may have heard it’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, with many related charities posting and publishing ways to keep mentally healthy and encouraging us to reach out should we feel isolated and alone.

But why is there hardly a mention of the link between nutrition and robust mental health? I’m not suggesting it’s a silver bullet, but it’s certainly an effective weapon in the arsenal of support tools.

In terms of our children’s state of mind, poor mental health in young people is soaring. According to the NHS, 200,000 children sought professional help in the post-pandemic 2021 (double pre-pandemic levels) and these figures don’t include privately funded help.

A recent ground-breaking study by the University of East Anglia has found that

“poor nutrition can have the same impact on a child’s mental wellbeing as witnessing regular arguing at home

Subsequently published in the BMJ, the study showed how nutrition plays a key role in promoting overall mental health, particularly for developing children and how consumption of fruit and vegetables can directly impact anxiety levels, sleep patterns and more.

It’s also interesting (if not terrifying), that food has replaced tobacco as the leading cause of early death globally. According to Chris van Tulleken in his new book Ultra-Processed People, there are now hundreds of robust scientific studies which show that a higher consumption of UPFs (ultra processed foods) is not only associated with weight gain, bowel disease and high blood pressure, but with depression and dementia too.

Apparently these UPFs (if it’s wrapped in plastic and contains an ingredient not found in a domestic kitchen, it’s likely to be a UPF) account for 60% of our diet in the UK and the figure is even higher for young people. While we think we know what constitutes “junk food” van Tulleken calls for a rethink..

it should include all supermarket bread, breakfast cereal; packaged snacks, reconstituted meat products and frozen meals”

That’s not a comforting thought for most time-poor Mums and Dads- I mean who’s got time to make their own bread?

So how does junk food mess with our mental health?

As the author of “Gut”, Giulia Enders admits, research into the gut and how it sends messages to the brain is only in its infancy. Work done as recently as 2011, proves that signals from the gut can reach different parts of the brain, not everywhere, I mean we can’t SEE what’s going on in the gut, but they can end up in the brain regions responsible for self-awareness, emotion and morality, fear, memory and motivation.

The Forced Swimming Test

A test where the mouse is placed in a small container of water, too deep to touch the ground, forcing it to swim around and around hoping for dry land. The question is: how long will each mouse keep swimming? That depends on its motivation and drive to succeed. Mice with depressive tendencies do not swim for long. If these mice perform better after receiving an anti-depressant, it’s a good judge of the likely success of the drug on humans.

To test the effect of good gut bacteria on mice in the same scenario, an Irish scientist John Cryan fed half of his mice with a strain of bacteria known to be good for the gut. And guess what? Not only did the test mice swim for longer, but their blood had fewer stress hormones in it AND performed better in memory and learning tests than their unpimped peers.

Good Bacteria = ambitious and straight-A student mice
Here’s my take on this (largely informed by Enders et al) on how to eat for a more balanced mind:

  1. Take antibiotics only if absolutely necessary as they kill ALL bacteria (even the good stuff) and if you need them, make sure you pay attention to building up your good bacteria afterwards.
  2. Buy organic meat. No routine antibiotics used.
  3. Wash your fruit and veg – animal fertilisers are used most agriculture
  4. Eat PROBIOTICS to replenish good bacteria: anything fermented- homemade is best (sadly not alcohol). Fermented pickles, kombucha, yoghurt, soy (sauce/miso/beans), kimchi; tofu.
  5. Feed your bacteria with PREBIOTICS: leeks, asparagus, onions and garlic, potato salad, endive and Jerusalem artichoke. Resistant starches like potatoes, rice and pasta cooked and left to cool. Raw veg. 

It’s true that our individual microbiomes are as unique as our fingerprints, but my gut feeling is that if you get your bacteria going, you might just be amazed at how good you feel.

Off to eat that homemade Kimchi that’s been in the cellar fridge for three years…

Have a wonderful, bacteria-ridden weekend.

Jacquie x