From plate to brain: Why parents need to be mindful of what their children eat

Teaching kids about food begins as early as a baby is able to eat. — Photos: 123rf

ARE nutrition and mental well-being connected? Yes, they are. Inextricably.

Mental well-being involves having adequate cognitive ability to pay attention, process information, retain information in memory, think, make decision, problem solve, plan, organise, strategise and coordinate, as a way to cope with daily challenges. If you have cognitive difficulties, chances are you would also have emotional and behavioural problems.

You need a healthy brain to function well, cognitively. A healthy developing brain needs good nutrition throughout childhood. Without sufficient and balanced nutrition for brain growth, children would suffer from stunting of their cognitive development.This would automatically affect their capacity to solve problems and regulate emotions, therefore becoming more at risk of psychological issues.

But how does nutritional status affect mental well-being? There are areas in our brain that are responsible for emotion regulation. If the highways in and out of these areas are not well-built due to the lack of nutrients, kids would be pretty emotionally erratic.Think about it, even as adults, we tend to get “hangry”; easily irritable when we are on empty stomach. The lack of nutrients and food can easily affect our emotional well-being.

Developing children need micronutrients that facilitate growth and maintenance of healthy body and brain. Micronutrients are the building blocks of our brain connections that I describe as mental highways.They help information move from one part of the brain to another part efficiently and effectively. Lack of nutrition would mean having potholes or even broken links that would create mental traffic congestion, resulting in poor functioning.

Mental stunting

There is such a thing as mental stunting. Infants who are not given enough nutrients as they are growing up tend to do less well in school, compared to children who have had a healthier history of nutrition.The brain needs to be healthy enough to focus, process and retain information for future use, as well as to learn all sorts of skills that contribute to becoming an independent human being.

In Malaysia, physical stunting is becoming a significant issue. I am part of a research group that has been monitoring stunting over the last ten years and we find that many of our children are not getting enough nutrients for their physical growth, especially Vitamin D, calcium and protein. This also affects their mental development that is usually observed in school results.Stunting is very much associated with late school entry, low grades, social isolation, poor social-emotional development, behavioural problems and fewer years of schooling.

Other than academic performance, poor cognitive functioning tends to result in psychological problems that usually extends to having social problems.Firstly, if you have difficulties with school work, you are likely to get scolded by teachers, or teased by classmates. Social-emotional development would then involve more negative experiences, leading to behavioural issues.

Poor nutrition is not just about the lack of nutrients. There is also plenty of scientific evidence pointing to overnutrition and its association with problems in cognitive development.Being overweight and obese affect cognitive function in children as imbalance in nutritional status would reduce brain function that are involved in cognitive abilities.

I was involved in a four-country study in Southeast Asia that showed that children who are overweight and obese had poorer results when given cognitive ability tests, compared to those were within the healthy weight range.Such results are also seen elsewhere in the world, and my reading of scientific literature tells me that such connections between nutrition and cognitive ability overrides many factors such as culture, socioeconomic status and education level.

What children eat can potentially affect their mental well-being, and parents need to be mindful of this.What children eat can potentially affect their mental well-being, and parents need to be mindful of this.

Keep kids fit

This tells us that it is important to keep our children and teenagers as fit as they can, not just for their physical health, but also for their mental health. It is not just about feeding them well, but also not feeding them too much.

While fat is important for brain growth and function, too much fat in the brain is not healthy as it is disruptive to cognitive functioning. Also, if you are physically unfit, the brain also does not function as well as if you are fit. Your brain needs enough oxygen. Bodies that lack fitness are not effective in pumping adequate oxygen to the brain to facilitate cognitive function.

There is increasing research that suggest the importance of identifying at-risk populations so that unmet nutritional requirements are addressed. Various levels of the society would need support in getting healthy levels of nutrition. Preventative measures such as the promotion of breastfeeding, and teaching parents about healthy feeding practices in early childhood can help shape healthy dietary habits to attain and maintain optimal growth in children.

Another way is to provide clear education to our young ones about establishing healthy habits as essential components of maintaining good mental health. A current research project that I am part of emphasises that part of overall resilience building for teenagers involves empowering them to understand how nutrition is integral to their overall well-being. This study is based on the Super Skills for Life resilience training programme co-developed by Professor Cecilia Essau of the University of Roehampton, and Professor Thomas Ollendick of Virginia Polytechnic Institute.It covers healthy lifestyle (nutrition, fitness and sleep hygiene) before moving into more psychological components such as self-esteem building, relaxation, cognitive-behavioural approach, emotional competency and stress management. It has been applied globally and shown to be effective.

Although there are certainly other factors that contribute to mental well-being apart from nutrition, it is important to ensure that children are given appropriate levels of nutrients for optimum physical and mental development. A healthy diet builds a healthy brain. Junk food breeds junk minds. Our future would be problematic if our children have unhealthy eating habits.

There is a growing trend of children with inadequate nutritional intake as well as unhealthy diets. So, it is also no wonder that we have an increase in the prevalence of children and teenagers with emotional, behavioural and social problems. Our National Health and Morbidity Surveys have reported steadily rising numbers of mental health issues among children and teenagers over the years. It's vital to factor in nutrition when we talk about mental health. All the stress management skills, counselling and healthy social engagements would not work very well if kids lack the proper nutrients they need to function effectively. Children are our future. Let’s feed them well so that they grow into well-adjusted, independent adults.

Dr Alvin Ng Lai Oon is a professor at the Department of Psychology, School of Medical and Life Sciences, Sunway University. He is a clinical psychologist by training and is passionate in promoting mental health literacy in the community.

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