In this opinion column from naturopathic doctor Amy Rothenberg, she emphasizes why healthy food matters for kid’s mental health. More emphasis needs to be placed on teaching and guidance for better food choices for children’s and teen’s mental health. Learn about INM’s Naturally Well culinary nutrition video series that educates kid’s about the value of healthy eating and basic cooking skills.
As a doctor who likes to keep up with research, I am sometimes struck by the kinds of things that are studied in scientific literature. Before naturopathic medical school, I had a paid internship in a research lab. My job was—I kid you not—to walk pregnant pygmy goats on a treadmill to hypothesize whether exercise was good during pregnancy. I learned a lot about keeping records, paying attention to detail and using objective measurements. However, as I dutifully walked my goats, I kept thinking, “why are we testing this? Isn’t it obvious that exercise is good in pregnancy?”
My gut reaction was the same when I read a recent report from the journal BMJ Prevention, Nutrition and Health Journal, stating children and teens who eat regular breakfast and lunch and choose more fruits and vegetables have better mental health. It was a long-term study on thousands of kids and used accepted standards of assessment of mental health.
Did we need another study showing that healthy eating helps kid’s and teen’s mental health? Years ago, while tending my goats, I might have disagreed. But today I realize that our society, public-health decision makers and health community need constant reminders that underscore the role of consistent and healthy food choices on physical and mental health for children.
There are many factors that go into mental health, including genetics, demographic factors, and numerous modifiable lifestyle choices. But one that cannot be argued is: poor mental health in childhood predicts poor mental health throughout life.
In this case, the hope is that quantified research can help inform public policy about childhood and teen food access and nutrition to create more programs and sustain existing ones. With as many resources that can be mustered, educating children, teens, parents, teachers, and policy makers about the importance of making good food choices for mental and physical health cannot be overemphasized.
Investing in Youth Nutrition Education Improves Kid’s Mental Health
The previously mentioned BMJ study emphasizes that such efforts are worth the cost for the development of good mental health in our kids and young people. So this study, while stating what might seem obvious to many of us, is useful for its capacity to influence public policy and public health. More than 50% of mental health disorders show up by the age of 14. Let’s support efforts that not only educate and inform, but also provide nourishment to our kids and teens so we can support positive mental health in the present and the future.
I am proud to work with The Institute for Natural Medicine because the organization has dedicated resources to this important issue. The Naturally Well Program educates youth about the inherent values of whole foods and the benefits of low processed foods, natural fats, high fiber, healthy digestion and good hydration and other eating habits that support healthy behaviors. The culinary-education video series is designed to teach kids the value of healthy eating and preventive health habits through cooking skills. Through the help of generous grants, the launch of the program in summer of 2022 will focus on children who are at risk for childhood obesity and the development of other chronic-health conditions at an early age.
We are at a crisis point with mental health as more than 50% of mental health disorders show up by the age of 14. The pandemic has compounded an existing problem of a backlog of treatment options and there is little in place to focus on prevention. The habits and strategies that support mental health and wellness for children, such as eating well, exercising, spending time outdoors and being a part of a greater community, are well researched and they work. However, adopting these changes can be difficult, particularly for those struggling with the necessities of daily life.
One rare positive outcome since the pandemic is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will continue to support free meals to all students regardless of family income throughout this 2021-22 school year. The pandemic has negatively impacted income and thus access to food for so many families. This is a modifiable risk factor, whereby an ounce of prevention goes a long way.
Resources to address the mental health needs of children and teens is inadequate. As need has grown, our funding and research has not grown commensurately. There is an ongoing demand for mental health providers with expertise in working with children and teens. The supply has not kept up with demand. In communities where poverty is in play or in those communities far from resources, there is additional difficulty accessing mental health services. And as with many health disparities, systemic racism, which of course contributes to the mental health woes of adults and children alike, also makes it difficult to find services. Structural barriers make it challenging, too; members of the LGBTQAI—especially children and teens— have difficulty in finding or accessing appropriate care.
As the year progresses, please stay tuned to announcements from INM on projects that will further the importance of healthy eating and lifestyle changes that support physical and mental health in communities where food security and mental health are coexisting systemic problems. Let’s support efforts, such as Naturally Well, Feeding America, or No Kid Hungry that not only educate and inform, but also provide nourishment to our kids and teens, which encourage positive mental health.
Naturally Well employs licensed naturopathic doctors to teach health and cooking classes at kid-centered community spaces, such as local Boys and Girls Clubs or the YMCA. We focus on preventative medicine to establish early habits for lifelong health. While we bring nutrition squarely to the table by basing many of the lessons on quality materials from the Food As Medicine Institute, Naturally Well goes beyond diet, encompassing a fuller understanding of nutrition and how to make the healthiest choices. For more on INM’s Naturally Well video series, click here.
This article is provided by the Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, partnered with the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. INM’s mission is to transform healthcare in America by increasing both public awareness of naturopathic medicine and access to naturopathic doctors for patients. INM believes that naturopathic medicine, with its unique principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness that overwhelms existing health care systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain their optimal lifelong health. INM strives to achieve this mission through the following initiatives:
- Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of naturopathic medicine
- Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
- Research – Expand quality research of this complex and comprehensive system of medicine
Dr. Rothenberg is a contributor to INM and practicing licensed naturopathic doctor in Northampton, Massachusetts. Dr. Rothenberg is the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians 2017 Physician of the Year. Dr. Rothenberg's writing can be found on NaturalMed.org, Better Nutrition's Naturopathic Health Hub, Medium, Thrive Global, and The Huff Post. She is the proud mother of 3 adult children.