When my kids were young I tried to keep them away from fizzy drinks and junk food. But as teenagers they stuffed their faces with crisps, pizza and sausage rolls when out with their friends. This probably wasn’t great for their bodies but may have affected their mood, too.
There is now evidence of a link between childhood diet and mental health issues, the majority of which emerge before adulthood. By the age of six, some children are showing signs of anxiety disorders and by 13 suffering from low mood and depression. The developing brain is particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of a poor diet, leading to impaired cognitive functioning and impulsiveness. By adolescence and early adulthood, this can develop into mental illness. Children who eat a lot of takeaways, sweet foods and red meat are more likely to act up and behave aggressively, or to internalise their anxieties.
Professor Felice Jacka, from the Food and Mood Centre in Australia, found in a study of 3,040 teenagers that reductions in their diet quality were associated with worse mental health. But the good news was that teens whose diet improved saw positive changes in their mental health. ‘Given these findings, attention should be paid to promoting healthy eating, as well as engaging parents in supporting adolescents to maintain good nutrition during a difficult life stage,’ says Professor Jacka.
It’s no surprise that a diet of highly processed, sugary and starchy foods containing few nutrients will be less effective in supporting a healthy-functioning brain. But it’s not just what children are eating; it’s also what they’re not eating: high-nutrient vegetables, raw fruits, fibre in the form of whole grains, beans and lentils, nuts, seeds, olive oil and oily fish – in short, a traditional Mediterranean-style diet. Children who eat this kind of food show fewer symptoms of anxiety, low mood, or behaviour problems.
Unfortunately, in the UK there has been an increase in the consumption of fast foods and sweetened drinks, with the average five-year-old consuming their own body weight in sugar in a year.
Even if children are eating homemade food, Professor Jacka says, ‘Consider the child who refuses fruit and vegetables, instead living on a limited diet of white foods such as bread, rice, pasta. They might not be eating lots of processed food but they’re certainly not getting the nutrients, fibre and important fats they need to grow a healthy brain.’
Whether your child is a fussy eater and not getting enough of the good stuff, or is munching and drinking their way through junk – even if it is when they are out of the home – by moving the whole family towards a good diet, you are likely to boost their brain function, mood and motivation.
I’m relieved that my kids, having passed their teenage years, now eat more healthily. Not because we nag them, but because they feel better when they do.
Keep a look out for healthy eyes
At a recent routine eye test, the optician asked if I had a first-degree relative (mother, father, sibling or child) with glaucoma, which I do. There are several types of the condition but the most common, open angle glaucoma, runs in families and has no warning signs, although some people develop tunnel vision. It tends to develop slowly and without treatment can lead to blindness.
It is caused by a build-up of fluid in the front of the eye, which increases the pressure and can lead to permanent damage to the optic nerve (which connects the eye to the brain). Glaucoma affects one in 50 over-40s and one in ten over-75s. Free NHS eye screening is available, through your optician, for those over the age of 40 with a close relative who has glaucoma. Early treatment and monitoring should preserve useful sight for life.
Rarely, glaucoma develops suddenly with eye pain, redness, blurred vision or seeing rings around lights, along with nausea, headache and vomiting. If this happens, go to A&E immediately.