Mood Food for Kids

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Every mom has to deal with a fair share of temper tantrums, mania, hyperactivity and sometimes defiant behaviour from their children, but when your child seems out of control it can feel like you are fighting a losing battle. The situation becomes direr when you discover that your child is exhibiting poor social skills or isn’t learning well at school. In a pang of desperation, many moms resort to mood altering medications. There is no doubt that these drugs can be effective, but so few people actually stop and pay attention to one of the major contributing factors to negative behaviours: Mood Food for Kids.

We live in a time where ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are becoming household names. The age old belief that a healthy body equals a healthy mind could not ring truer than it does today. With the rise in the amount junk and processed foods we are feeding our kids, we have to wonder how much this has to do with the subsequent rise in behavioural problems. Of course, with most cases the causes are multi-factorial and each child needs to be looks at holistically- from an emotional, social, medical and nutritional stand point. Still, the role that mood food for kids plays can be very powerful in helping your child overcome their issues.


Several dietary negative behavioural triggers have been identified. Your child may be reacting to none, one or all of these. The best advice is to monitor your child and try and identify their own personal triggers. The top bad mood triggers include:

Blood sugar alterations

An irritable, anxious child is often just suffering from hypoglycaemia (or low blood sugar). After a meal, all food (carbohydrate food in particular) gets broken down into a usable form of energy for the body - glucose. It’s the main energy source for cells, and more importantly for growing brains. Insulin is the hormone responsible for ultimately getting the glucose shuttled into our cells so it can be used for energy. It is like the “key that unlocks” the door to our cells allowing energy to enter. A subsequent rise in insulin levels follows a meal, glucose gets taken into the cells and blood sugar drops to normal. However, when the body receives a very large load of glucose, the rise and fall in blood sugar becomes more pronounced and blood sugar can fall too low. Processed cereals, pastries, white bread and other refined products are the main culprits here. So, feed your child a sweetened, refined bowl of cereal in the morning, and chances are he’ll be cranky by 10 o clock. Excess consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates has been linked scientifically to behavioural disorders, problems with concentration and mood disorders.

Nutrient deficiencies

Nutrient deficiencies can arise as a result of poor diet, bad food choices, picky and finicky eating or bad digestion and assimilation of nutrients. Common nutrient deficiencies in behavioural disturbances include:

Iron deficiency. ] In the first months of life a child gets everything it needs from mother’s milk. However, after 6 months the iron content of milk is no longer sufficient for baby’s growth needs. Iron deficiency (or anaemia) can develop early in life, especially when children are weaned on too much milk and not enough of the more nutritious foods. An anaemic child will be tired and listless, pale skinned and may have difficulty concentrating.

Magnesium deficiency. The mineral magnesium plays an important role in energy production and the transmission of nerve impulses. Studies have shown that a deficiency of magnesium can result in aggressive behaviour and also contributes to depression and anxiety. Although magnesium is widespread in foods, deficiencies are quite common.

Essential fatty acid deficiency. There is a lot of evidence linking a lack of omega 3 fatty acids to ADD, ADHD and other behavioural disorders. Essential fats, like the omega 3’s are what make up the structure of our brains and are particularly important in early life when these tissues are still growing and maturing. One of the best sources of essential fats is breast milk, which explains why breast fed children tend to suffer fewer behavioural problems than those that are bottle fed. Omega 3’s are found mainly in fish oils (cod salmon, mackerel, sardines, pilchards and herring) and in some less common plant oils (flaxseed, canola, walnut and soya oils). If these essential oils are usually not eaten regularly and deficiencies in omega 3 fatty acids are common.

B complex vitamin deficiency. B vitamins also play an important role in brain chemistry. B complex vitamins, particularly B1, B3, B5, B6, folate and B12 are important in preventing depression, poor concentration and anxiety. A deficiency of B complex vitamins can also lead to anaemia.

Food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances

Food allergy is a term often used in a broader sense to describe an adverse reaction to food. However, in a medical sense a food allergy is something that is IgE mediated (IgE or immunoglobulin E is the type of antibody that is produced to an invading food protein). A food sensitivity is also mediated by an antibody but involves what is known as an IgG reaction. IgE’s tends to be more immediate and more severe than IgG (although IgG’s are more common that IgE’s) but both play a role in childhood reactions. An intolerance has no immunological component but still elicits a reaction.

Until recently, the role that food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances play in the development of behavioural problems had largely been ignored. There have been numerous studies indicating that children with behavioural problems are often reacting to several food ingredients and that when put on a low allergen diet they tend to suffer less emotional, learning and hyperactivity problems. Reactions also tend more to be to multiple foods, and not just one food ingredient. Some of the common “allergens” in children include:

  • Milk. This includes all products derived from milk as well, like yogurt and cheese
  • Soya. This includes soya milk, texturised vegetable protein, tofu, soya sauce
  • Wheat and gluten. This includes wheat and rye breads, pasta and barley.
  • Eggs. This includes whole eggs but also egg as a hidden ingredient in cakes, mayonnaises etc
  • Peanuts and other nuts. This includes whole nuts, nut butters and hidden sources of nuts.
  • Salicylates. These are natural food chemicals found in, apples, berries, cherries, coffee, dried fruits, eggplant, nuts, oranges, peppers, potatoes, tea and tomatoes. The salicylate content is highest just under the skin of fruits and vegetables.
  • Tartrazine (E102). This artificial colorant imparts a yellow colour to certain processed foods
  • Benzoic acid (E210). This preservative is found in soft drinks, cordials and some margarines
  • Monosodium glutamate (E621 or MSG). This flavour enhancer is found in food spices, take-out and restaurant food.


A healthy, balanced diet that is tailor made to suite your child’s specific needs and sensitivities is the key to a happier, calmer and well adjusted child. Here are some brain-saving diet solutions for your young one:

  • Breast feed. If you can, it’s advised that you breast feed exclusively for 4-6 months and then feed for a long as you can. Breast milk will provide your child with all the essential fats and other nutrients needed for healthy brain development.

  • Ensure balanced blood sugar. Once your child is eating a full diet, blood sugar balancing becomes important. Great improvements in behaviour can be seen in children following a low glycemic index (GI) diet. The so-called low GI foods release their glucose into the bloodstream in a slow controlled manner, which keeps kids energy levels sustained. The high GI foods (like refined cereals, biscuits, sweets, white bread and other refined and sugar-laden foods) on the other hand tend to dump glucose into the blood stream causing a more dramatic and erratic rise and fall in blood sugar. Giving your child a wholegrain, low GI breakfast that contains fibre, such as low GI toast (you can get low GI breads in any supermarket); rye, Low GI cereals (also available at any supermarket) oats porridge, fibre rich bran or Maltabella is a good start. For sweetness you can try a little fructose (fruit sugar) or xylitol (available in crystalline form at specialised supermarkets and pharmacies). Fresh fruit is also a good option. Try making a smoothie by blending fresh milk or yogurt with fresh fruit. You can also try adding fresh, dried or pureed fruit to porridge or cereal. At school and for lunch a wholegrain sandwich, pasta or rice salad, fruit and yogurt are good options. Wholegrain crackers like provita and ryevita as well as corn and oat cakes are good snack items.

  • Add some protein power. Adding protein to a meal not only helps sow the release of glucose into the bloodstream but also helps provide essential amino acids in the diet. Amino acids (the building blocks of protein) are needed to help produce important brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Meat, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds are all sources of protein and amino acids.

  • Go for iron rich foods. If you’re concerned, iron deficiency can be identified through a simple blood test. Iron rich foods like fortified cereals, red meat, eggs, chicken, fish and legumes should be a daily feature in your child’s diet. Supplements containing iron and B complex vitamins designed for children would also be helpful.

  • Bump up magnesium. Magnesium is found in good amounts in wholegrain cereals, spinach, legumes (like lentils and kidney beans) ground pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and almonds (or try an almond butter).

  • Include essential fats. The best source of omega 3’s is oily fish (because it contains DHA, a substance essential for brain development). Fatty fish, like mackerel, salmon, pilchards and sardines should be eaten at least 3 times per week. If your child won’t eat fish, a supplement is advised. Plant oils like flaxseed, canola, walnut and soya oils also contain some omega 3’s. You can also purchase omega 3 enriched eggs. Other good fats include olive oil, nut and seed butters. There is also evidence that supplementing with Gamma-linoleic acid (GLA) in the form of Evening Primrose or Borage oil is helpful.

  • Ensure adequate B vitamin intake. Food sources include wholegrains, leafy vegetables, bananas, oranges, eggs, dairy, meat, fish and chicken

  • Check for and monitor allergies, sensitivities and intolerances. If you suspect any specific foods you could try your child on an elimination style diet where toy avoid the food and then reintroduce after some time. Allergies can also be diagnosed at your doctor through skin prick or blood tests. A dietician can also help you identify and eliminate problem foods.

3-day Good Behaviour Meal Plan

Here is what a general 3-day brain boosting plan should look like. This is designed for a pre-school aged child. Obviously, you need to adjust portion sizes and food textures depending on your child’s age, activity levels and appetite and the types of foods depending on any allergies, sensitivities or intolerances.


Breakfast: Maltabella porridge sweetened with xylitol

Snack: Apple puree and yogurt

Lunch: Low GI bread with fresh salmon and greens

Snack: Mixed fruit kebabs

Dinner: Rice pasta with mixed veggies and chopped chicken


Breakfast: Oats porridge with purred apple ground pumpkin and sunflower seeds

Snack: Fruit smoothie made with soya milk, banana and mixed berries

Lunch: Sardines on rye toast with chopped salad

Snack: Oat cakes with almond butter

Dinner: Beef steak, sweet potato oven chips and sautéed spinach with lentils


Breakfast: Scrambled eggs served on corn crackers

Snack: Ryevita with mashed chickpea paste or hummous

Lunch: Fishcakes with cooked mixed vegetables and wheat-free pasta

Snack: Fresh fruit salad

Dinner: Chicken strips, brown rice and broccoli with cheese sauce thickened with corn starch

Author: Ashleigh Caradas

* A copy of this article appeared in Living and Loving Magazine

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