Adorable baby girl smiling and sitting on baby chair with vegetables in the kitchen

The Foods We Eat Impact Our Physical and Mental Health

We need food to fuel our bodies and provide us with nutrients that keep our bodies strong, healthy and functioning at optimal level. The food we put into our bodies affect not just our bellies, but our brains as well. Research has shown that our gut and brain interact with each other and are intimately connected. This is known as the gut-brain axis, the biochemical signaling between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system. The foods we choose to eat can have a major impact on our physical well being as well as on our mental health. With the rise in ADHD, anxiety, autism, autoimmune disease and depression in kids, offering foods that promote brain development, positive mood and attention is critical.

There is a Biochemical Relationship Between Food and Mood in Our Children

What we feed our children has the potential to impact their mood and cognitive function. It has been shown that there is a biochemical relationship between food and mood. This can be attributed to neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that relay signals to the brain. Nutrients in foods are precursors to neurotransmitters and serotonin and noradrenalin, both considered “happy neurotransmitters are made from food.

Many neurotransmitters are synthesized in both the gut and the brain including serotonin, dopamine and gamma amino butyric acid (aka GABA). Nutrients necessary to support neurotransmitter synthesis include vitamins (especially C, D, B’s and folate), amino acids, minerals including (zinc and iron) and omega-3 fats all of which can be found in the foods we consume.

Serotonin Levels Affect Your Child’s Happiness

Serotonin plays an important role in happiness, restful sleep and a better overall mood. Foods that boost the serotonin levels in the brain include eggs, fish, turkey, mangos, kiwi, bananas, walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, sunflower and sesame seeds.

Dopamine Boosting Foods Influence Your Child’s Pleasure and Motivation

Dopamine plays a part in regulating the brain’s reward centers which involve pleasure and motivation. Dopamine levels also impact memory, mood, sleep and ability to learn. Foods that boost dopamine levels include citrus fruits, berries, aged cheese, avocados, eggs and fish.

GABA Levels Reduce Anxiety and Improve Your Child’s Sleep

Gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) reduces anxiety and improves sleep. Foods choices that boost GABA levels include fermented foods such as sauerkraut, brown rice, spinach, chia seeds, oranges and almonds.

The Truth About Complex and Simple Carbohydrates

Since it has been shown that food has a direct correlation on our mood discussing the benefits of our macronutrients is essential. Carbohydrates are our body’s source of energy. There are simple and complex carbohydrates.

Complex carbohydrates contain more vitamins, fiber and minerals than simple carbohydrates. They are digested slowly allowing for a steady state of energy in the body as well as improved brain function.

Simple sugars on the other hand are digested more quickly and cause spikes of glucose in the blood leading to increased fluctuations in our mood, energy and concentration.

Complex carbohydrates such as legumes, unrefined, whole grains, fruits and vegetables tend to have a more calming affect on the body and a decreased release of stress hormones.

Simple carbohydrates found in processed foods, cookies, juice and refined grains are known to cause brain fog, hyperactivity and decreased concentration. Initially they create a more revved up feeling do to the spikes of sugar in our blood. However, we rebound quickly.

Protein Optimizes Brain Functioning and Strengthens the Body

Protein is an essential building block for muscles, bones, hormones and the brain. Protein optimizes brain functioning. Most proteins provide the body with B vitamins, iron, magnesium, zinc and other vital nutrients. Since brain cells communicate via chemical messaging, protein is necessary to produce neurotransmitters. Serotonin and noradrenalin, both “happy” neurotransmitters are made from food. The best sources of protein come from pastured, grass-fed lean meats including poultry and beef, legumes, beans, eggs, cheese, tofu and fish.

Choose Healthy Essential Fats to Balance Mood and Sharpen Memory

Consumption of fats in our diet are important for providing energy, managing mood, helping absorb vitamins and protecting the heart and brain. The brain is composed of cholesterol and fat and the essential fatty acids we eat help to improve brain function. Healthy essential fats to include in the diet are unsaturated and omega-3s. Healthy fat choices include olive oil, avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, flaxseed, coconut oil, grass-fed butter and ghee and fatty fish. Research has shown that a diet rich in omega-3s may help to reduce symptoms of depression, ADHD, balance mood and sharpen your memory. Other studies report a deficiency in omega 3 fats, zinc and B-vitamins may be increase the risk for a mood disorder.

Feed Your Children a Diet of Whole Foods to Start the Day

Research has shown that a diet consisting of whole foods is beneficial in stabilizing mood. Starting the day with a well balanced breakfast including complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats has been shown to have a positive influence on mood and attention as well as providing the necessary energy needed to perform. Consider providing your kids with breakfasts that include eggs with veggies and whole grain toast with avocado, a yogurt smoothie with added fruit, vegetables and nut butter, oatmeal with collagen powder, fruits and coconut oil or homemade protein pancakes with a berry puree.

A Balanced Diet Means a Happy, Focused and Energized Child

Food truly is the first line of medicine. Research continues to prove that the foods we choose to eat can benefit our bodies in a positive or negative way. Offering a balanced diet comprised of whole foods including all varieties of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats and whole grains will keep your kids happy, focused and energized.


Cindy Wechsler is an Integrative Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. She received her Masters of Science in Nursing degree from Yale University and has been treating children for over 30 years. She specializes in the natural treatment of common childhood conditions. Her compassion and understanding of the body’s innate ability to heal itself fuels her passion to bridge the gap between traditional and integrative medicine.