How Food Can Affect Our Children’s Mental and Emotional Health

Dasha, a Nurse Case Manager who specializes in population health, provides some insight into how food can positively and negatively impact our children’s overall health, not just their physical health.

“A healthy meal choice is more complicated than choosing to eat more produce or fewer processed foods. One TABLE parent told us that because she has such a limited budget to buy groceries, she only buys foods she knows her children will eat.”

Children are full of personality and adventure while at the same time learning a lot about how to navigate their world. There are so many influences that can affect their emotional, mental, and physical well-being. Something that may be overlooked, or people may not realize, is just how much what a child eats can directly impact their emotional health.

Research shows that 21% of children are being diagnosed with mental, emotional, or behavioral issues, and at younger ages. And, children are getting prescribed more medication now than ever. One example is ADHD, also known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which is usually diagnosed when children have difficulty concentrating in their learning environment. Other conditions include general learning disorders, anxiety, psychological disorders, poor sleep, and depression. 

While there are many different causes of mental and psychological disorders including environmental factors, chronic stress, and social situations, nutrition also plays a critical role. Everyone has one thing in common that we do to survive, and that is to eat! Not eating a healthy, balanced diet can cause damage to the brain. Nutrition gives us vitamins and minerals that our body needs to thrive. 

New findings are correlating the link between food and mood. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep, mood, appetite, and pain. According to Harvard Health, 95% of serotonin is produced in the stomach. Healthy food is used to create “good” bacteria from which serotonin is produced. Foods that make good bacteria include vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, seafood, and small amounts of meat and dairy. Can you imagine how not getting a wide range of healthy food can affect a child’s well-being over time? 

So what food should children avoid?

It’s important that kids are able to try all sorts of foods – whether they are considered healthy or unhealthy. Having candy every now and then and enjoying a chicken nugget meal is part of growing up! But, it’s also important to know what is in these foods, what they could do to our bodies and minds, and to balance them out with the healthy, nourishing food our minds need!

Sugary Foods

Low-fiber and high-sugar foods such as breakfast cereal, pastries, and sweets do not feed energy to the brain. Instead, children become sluggish and tired. Eating candy during lunch can make concentrating on a school math test hard. Eating a lot of ice cream before bed can cause children to find it hard to wind down for bedtime.

Synthetic Dyes

Children love to drive past fast food restaurants to get a special treat with their meals. Unfortunately, processed food contains dyes that children consume at high rates. Synthetic dyes are artificial colors often found in candy, soft drinks, and jello. These dyes are petroleum-based chemicals and are often not allowed in other countries. Ingredients on nutrition labels such as Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1, and Red 40 are in processed foods and can cause hyperactivity in children. 

Greasy Foods

Those mouth-watering ten-piece chicken nuggets and fries on many fast-food menus sound excellent. But it doesn’t make you feel so great after eating. According to Northwest Primary Care, foods high in trans fat can cause inflammation and cause harm to cognitive function. Children may feel slower or in a bad mood.

Good food equals a good mood

Everyone loves a good bite to eat. Healthy food is one of the easiest ways to provide your children’s bodies and minds with the nutrients they need to positively affect their brains. The saying “you are what you eat” explains how vibrant fruits and veggies can make children feel. According to the Association of Dieticians UK, children who eat high-fiber cereal breakfasts perform better on tests and have more significant attention. Children’s performance is lower when eating a high-sugar and low-fiber breakfast. Eating more vegetables, fruit, whole grains, Omega-3s, nuts, seeds, and beans, are essential brain foods.

Why does this matter?

There needs to be more knowledge of the different causes of mental disorders. Parents can make diet changes if informed about nutrition and behavior. Families can save thousands of dollars on medication and other treatment options. Practitioners can make more recommendations for nutritional changes to fix the cause of the problem. 

What can we do about it?

Teaching children that eating healthy food will make a difference in their physical, mental, and emotional well-being is the first step to prevention and helping our children succeed and develop. The habits children learn in adolescence will contribute to their adulthood. TABLE wants to help children get on the right track with their mental health by giving them access to delicious healthy food. They take this one step further by providing nutrition education that gives kids the foundational tools they need to manage their own well-being. Changing the healthy mindset is the start of changing wellness in future generations. 

Will you join me in donating to TABLE now? Your gift will change a child’s life today, giving them a brighter tomorrow!


Rawls, B., MD (18, May 23). Is your diet causing food intolerance? Retrieved April 18, 2023, from

Selhub, E. (2022, October 18). Nutritional Psychiatry: Your Brain on Food. Retrieved April 19, 2023, from

John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (2022, January 25). Study Reveals Fourfold Range in Rates of Mental Health Problems Among U.S. Children Based on Relational and Social Risks. Retrieved April 19, 2023, from

Brain Balance (n.d.). Common Food Triggers of Behavioral Issues. Brain Balance Centers. Retrieved April 19, 2023, from

British Diabetic Association (n.d.). Diet, behavior and learning in Children: Food Fact Sheet. The Association of UK Dietians. Retrieved April 19, 2023, from

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