6 Major Nutrients to Support Mental Health in Children

by | Jul 8, 2020

Making individual nutrition choices can offer an easy way to help support and improve mental health.

Most people know that we need to eat the right food every day to sustain our bodies, keeping it strong and healthy. However, the type of food, diet, and nutrition we consume daily can also have a significant impact on our mood.

Over the past years, the evidence supporting the relationship of nutrient deficiencies, quality of food, the type of diet eaten and the risk of developing mental health issues, especially in children, has grown enormously.

Children consuming diets high in sweetened drinks, processed food and foods high in sugar such as chocolate, lollies, cakes and biscuits, have demonstrated to have a significantly increased risk of mental health issues such as depression. Diets that are high in these types of foods lack the essential nutrients our brain needs to stay healthy.  The design of these highly processed foods is to overstimulate our taste and appetite centres, creating impulsive and uncontrollable eating behaviours. There are now very close links with foods such as chips, lollies, chocolate, white bread, pasta and biscuits with food addictions.

6 Nutrients Needed for a Healthy Mind 

It is essential to establish healthy dietary and food habits during childhood, especially adolescence, as this is typically a time when mental health disorders start to emerge.  Knowing which nutrients play a role in preventing mental health disorders such as depression can offer a specific dietary focus with foods that contain vital nutrients needed for a healthy brain.

1. Protein

Protein breaks down into amino acids during digestion.  In total, our body requires 20 amino acids to function correctly and for good health. If our body is healthy, it can make 11 amino acids. However, there are nine amino acids we can only get from food, and we call these essential amino acids.  Essential amino acids are needed to produce brain chemicals, known as neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters play a crucial role in our mood, focus, thoughts and feelings.

Essential amino acids that are needed to produce neurotransmitters:

  • This essential amino acid converts to the neurotransmitter Serotonin, which influences mood, self impulse control, calmness, sleep, intestinal movements and appetite.
  • This essential amino acid converts to the neurotransmitter Dopamine, which helps with feelings of pleasure, reward, emotional responses, behaviour, memory, cognition, mood, attention, learning and motivation.
  • Glutamine is a semi-essential amino acid. Under certain circumstances, when our body can not make enough Glutamine to keep up with demand, extra is needed through diet or supplementation. Glutamine converts to a neurotransmitter Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid (GABA)  which helps to induce relaxation, reduce stress, promotes feelings of calmness and balance in mood, improve sleep and relieve pain.

Best Food Sources for Protein

  • Choose high biologically available protein sources such as meats, eggs, milk and dairy, which provide all the essential amino acids.
  • Plant-based protein sources such as peas, beans and grains have a low biological value due to the fact they are deficient or may not contain one or more of the essential amino acids. If you are getting your protein predominantly from plant sources, you need to plan your meals to ensure you are getting the correct levels of all the essential amino acids our body and brains require.

2. SAMe (s-adenosyl methionine)

Our body makes SAMe from the essential amino acid methionine. In the brain, SAMe donates part of its chemical structure to help produce neurotransmitters such as Serotonin and Dopamine.  SAMe is dependent on adequate amounts of the B vitamins folate and B12 to perform its role to help build neurotransmitters.  Mood disorders such as depression are associated with low levels of SAMe, and increasing levels of SAMe have shown positive effects on symptoms of depression.

Best Food Sources for SAMe

  • Ensure that you are eating adequate amounts of high biological available protein foods that contain all the essential amino acids.
  • Eggs, fish and chicken are some foods containing the highest level of methionine.

3. Omega 3 fatty acids

Our brains need Omega 3 fatty acids Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) to keep the structure of the nerve cells healthy, ensuring healthy brain development and that neurotransmitters messages are functioning. The only way we get Omega 3 fatty acids is through the food we eat. Omega 3 fatty acids can directly impact brain neurotransmitters by stimulating the production of Serotonin and enhancing the cells receiving this neurotransmitter. Also,  deficiencies of Omega 3 fatty acids have been linked to neurotransmitters messages not being able to travel through the brain nerve network effectively to pass on messages to cells and help with mood regulation.

Best Food Sources

  • Seafood sources such as mackerel, salmon, cod liver oil, herring, sardines and oysters contain significant amounts of both omega-3 fats DHA and EPA.
  • Chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans and flaxseeds contain an omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which needs to get converted into DHA and EPA by the body. This major issues using ALA as a source of DHA & EPA is the conversion processes. The conversion process is hugely inefficient in people, and not much of the ALA gets converted to DHA or EPA. The small amounts that do get converted are not likely to offer therapeutic quantities to assist with mood disorders.

4. B Vitamins

Water-soluble B vitamins play an essential role by helping enzymes in our body produce and control the balance of neurotransmitters. B Vitamins also help build the fatty coating protecting the spinal cord, brain and nerve cells within the nervous system. Folate deficiency is common among people that suffer from depression, and changes in cognitive function can occur in adolescence deficient in vitamin B12. Folate and vitamin B12 deficiency can cause pernicious anemia which is when the body can’t make enough healthy red blood cells, impacting mood and cognitive development.

Best Food Sources

  • There is a variety of foods such as salmon, leafy green salads and vegetables, organ meats such as liver, eggs, milk and meats that can help ensure you are getting all the B vitamins required for a healthy brain.
  • Vitamin B12 is only naturally found in animal foods such as beef, lamb, pork, fish, poultry, dairy and eggs.
  • Folate sources include leafy green salads & vegetables, eggs, legumes and beef liver.

5. Zinc

Zinc is a mineral known to protect the brain from damage caused by free radicals which are single atoms in the body that can cause damage to cells. People with clinical depression, in general, have lower levels of zinc. In clinical research, people that received zinc supplementation alongside anti-depression therapy showed an overall improvement in depression symptoms compared to those people not taking a zinc supplement.

Best Food Sources

  • Red meat, shellfish, dairy, eggs all provide a significant source of dietary zinc.
  • In general fruit and vegetables do not contain large amounts of zinc.
  • Nuts and seeds such as almonds, cashews, peanuts, hemp seeds pumpkin and sesame seeds contain significant amounts of zinc and can help supplement diets with extra zinc.

6. Iron

Iron is essential to help produce neurotransmitters and the layer of protection around the nerve cells called myelin. Several studies have linked low circulating levels of iron with depression, and other health conditions such as iron deficiency anaemia are often associated with depression.

Best Food Sources

  • There are two types of iron found in foods, heme and non-heme iron. Our body absorbs each one of these irons very differently with heme iron typically being absorbed at a higher rate and more efficiently than non-heme iron.
  • Heme iron is found only in red meat, liver and organ meats, shellfish, seafood and poultry.
  • Non-heme iron is the dominant iron in plant-based foods such as green leafy vegetables, beans, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, nuts and legumes. Non-heme iron also makes up some of the iron content found in eggs, dairy and animal meats.

What You Can Do Now

Keep it simple. Nutritious food doesn’t have to be complicated or fancy.

Start to incorporate foods that contain the major nutrients needed for brain health into daily meals, if possible, choose locally grown whole real foods. Changes don’t need to happen all at once. Small changes can make an enormous difference, especially if trying to reduce the dietary intake of processed foods. Perhaps start with only eating whole real foods one day per week? Or it could be as simple as switching out one meal per day, for example, having eggs for breakfast instead of processed, boxed cereals. 

Changes to your diet or nutrition to manage a health condition should only be undertaken with advice from a suitably qualified nutritional health professional.

This factsheet is for general information only.

Please contact me to discuss your individual needs.