Commentary: Healthy Food Matters for Kid’s Mental Health 

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?”

healthy food matters for kid's mental health.
Healthy food choices nutrition and cooking education improve kids and teens physical and mental health

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. 

healthy food matters for kid's mental health.
Sneak peak at the video set for INMs Naturally Well culinary nutrition video series and kitchen helper Emir Islas

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, Better Nutrition's Naturopathic Health Hub, Medium, Thrive Global, and The Huff Post. She is the proud mother of 3 adult children.

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Deb Hubers

Debra Hubers is a serial entrepreneur and has started seven businesses; ranging from an advanced genomics to an employer health care purchasing cooperative. Deb has over 35 years of experience in healthcare finance, education, technology, and pharmacogenomics.

Ms. Hubers has dedicated her career to measuring and improving healthcare outcomes. Her expertise is leveraging technology to deliver personalized, preventative medicine. Ms. Hubers co-founded La Vita Compounding Pharmacy in 2007. Collaborating with her business partner, physicians and strategic partners, Deb has grown La Vita to be one of the most respected and sought-after personalized medicine providers on the west coast. She is also Co-Founder of EpigeneticsRx, a leading provider of precise, personalized, prevention which positively impacts genetic expression.

Alex Keller, ND

Dr. Alex Keller, ND, AFMCP is a graduate of the University of Ottawa with an Honours Bachelor in Health Sciences and Psychology. Although originally intending to attend conventional medical school, following a three-month volunteer internship at a rural Kenyan hospital where he observed how doctors used local food to treat patients, he shifted his career goals and pursued a degree in naturopathic medicine at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto.

After one year of practicing with the esteemed Dr. Chris Pickrell, ND, RH in a community acupuncture setting, in 2015 he and his wife Dr. Jenn Keller, ND moved to rural Ottawa, Canada where they started an organic farm and retreat center. In the same year, Alex and his athletic therapist sister Jess Keller combined their practices to form Keller Active Health, an integrative physical therapy clinic.

Ever curious and passionate about the education of evidence-based natural medicine, in 2017, Dr. Keller joined a fledgling Ottawa-based health tech startup named Fullscript. He serves as its Medical Director and oversees the development of medical education content for practitioners across North America.

Prior to medicine, Alex worked in the renewable energy sector, where he developed a deep passion for sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship. This connection between medicine and agriculture now drives Alex to focus much of his energy on bringing awareness to the quality and sourcing standards in the supplement and organic agriculture supply chains.

Today, he splits his professional time practicing as a clinician, working for Fullscript, and expanding the farming operation while chasing his kids with Jenn and occasionally running ultra-marathon trail races. He is also currently completing an Executive MBA through the Quantic School of Business & Technology with a focus on supply chain innovation.

Pamela Snider, ND

Pamela Snider, ND, is Executive and Senior Editor for the Foundations of Naturopathic Medicine Project, producing a first of its kind international textbook of Naturopathic medicine through a series of international retreats and symposia. A nationally recognized integrative health and policy leader, she is active in both national and regional integrative health initiatives. Dr. Snider serves on the Board of Directors, was founding Executive Director and co-founder of the Academic Consortium for Integrative Health (ACIH/ACCAHCa consortium of the councils of schools, accrediting agencies and certifying bodies of the licensed, traditional and emerging integrative health professions, and is currently Vice Chair and co-founder of the Integrative Health Policy Consortium (IHPC).  Dr. Snider served as a founding Board Member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine from 2014-2016. Her public policy work includes completing a two year appointment to the DHHS Center For Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) Medicare Coverage Advisory Committee (MCAC); serving as a Steering Committee Member for  the HRSA funded American College of Preventive Medicine NCCIM Integrative Medicine in Preventive Medicine Residency program, co-directing in USPHS Region X the Building Bridges Between Provider Communities Group, an exploration of interdisciplinary collaboration and common ground between public health and CAM; serving for 22 years on Washington State’s Health Professional Loan Repayment and Scholarship Program Advisory Committee (HPLRSP); providing technical assistance to and developing key language for the enabling legislation for NIH Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCIH/NCCAM); and staffing Joseph Pizzorno ND during his appointment as Commissioner on the White House Commission on CAM Policy.

From 1994-2003, Dr. Snider served as Associate Dean for Public and Professional Affairs and Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University, dividing her work between academic and public affairs activities, including chairing the Naturopathic Medicine Program Curriculum Review Committee.  Dr. Snider has been teaching, publishing and lecturing widely on Naturopathic philosophy, theory integrative health, public policy, and other topics for over 30 years. Currently, an Associate Professor at National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM) in Portland, OR, Dr. Snider also continues at Bastyr University in her 22nd year as a faculty member teaching naturopathic medicine history, clinical theory, and global context. Among her Naturopathic medicine professional roles she serves on the Institute for Natural Medicine’s Leadership Council.  In 1989, she co-led the naturopathic profession with Dr. Jared Zeff, in developing a unifying definition of naturopathic medicine and its principles of practice adopted unanimously by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) House of Delegates. She was a co-investigator in the 2004 NIH NCCAM research study, the North American Naturopathic Medical Research Agenda and CAM Advisor in NIHCCAM’s Financing Integrative Health Care (University of Washington).  Her areas of experience include healthcare education; naturopathic and interdisciplinary clinical theory, curriculum development; clinical practice; government and legislative affairs, public policy, interdisciplinary collaboration, and community organizing.  Dr. Snider has received the Ontario Naturopathic Physician of the Year Award, the Physician of the Year Award from the AANP, the President’s Outstanding Vision Award and Distinguished Alumnus Award at Bastyr University, AANP’s President’s Award, an honorary Doctorate of Naturopathic Philosophy from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM), the William A Mitchell Vis Award from the AANP and The Gathering – NMSA’s Beacon Award. She received her ND degree in 1982 from Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences and is a licensed naturopathic physician in the State of Washington. She lives with her husband and children at their homestead in North Bend Washington, in the beautiful mountain to sea landscape and home of The Revival – Restore the Vis, an annual student-led community gathering.

Susan Haeger

Susan Haeger is Founder/Principal of Transformative Health Solutions Inc. She has applied her twenty plus years in executive leadership to help shape and drive adoption of progressive health policy for whole person healthcare. She was a section contributor to the 2021 INM/AANP published professional white paper, Naturopathic Physicians as Whole Health Specialists: The Future is Whole Person Health Care that provides supporting evidence for the profession’s significant and unique contributions to preventive, whole person care and models of integrative clinical practice.

Bruce Barlean

Bruce Barlean is an owner and founder of Barlean’s, a global dietary supplement manufacturer located in the Pacific Northwest in Ferndale, WA. Bruce has been actively involved in the Natural Products industry since 1989 and is passionate about making a difference in the world and positively impacting the lives of others.

Bruce believes that people can make a difference in the world through ordinary purchases. He is committed to improving the quality of life for every person on the planet by making the best products and by using the profits to support outreach programs. Bruce summarizes it simply, “We make good stuff to do good stuff”.

In the late 1980’s Bruce became passionate about how health could be dramatically improved with Flax Oil Supplementation. Bruce along with his entrepreneurial parents saw the potential to improve the lives of many people and in 1989 they began selling Flax Oil under the Barlean’s name. From 1989 – 2000 the business grew an average of 40% year over year. While most companies saw a decline in business in the 2001 recession, Barlean’s continued to grow and soon became America’s #1 selling flaxseed oil and continues to be to the present. The brand has since expanded to include additional oils, green food concentrates and other premium supplements. Bruce continues to drive innovation and over the years his products and company have won countless awards including: Eight consecutive Vity Awards for #1 EFA, Six consecutive Vity Awards for #1 Greens Food Supplement, Natural Choice Award for Best Specialty Supplement, Best Product of the Year, Best New Product, Gold Medal Taster’s Choice Award, Gold Medal American Masters of Taste Award, #1 Health Food Store Brand for Consumer Satisfaction by Consumer Lab, and Manufacturer of the Year.

In 2013 as the company was on the eve of celebrating the 25th year in business Bruce and his parents decided to take their desire to help people to a new level that they call Pathway to a Better Life – which is now seen in the Barlean’s logo. Bruce and his parents had always been generous in their giving and support of charities, but as part of the Pathway to a Better Life they decided to increased partnership with charitable organizations such as: Vitamin Angels, Compassion International, KidsTown International, Autism Hope Alliance, Engedi Refuge, Project 92, and others. And because so many people are unable to meet basic nutritional needs, Bruce created a comprehensive Omega-3 and multivitamin formula that he distributes free-of-charge to local food banks. In addition, Bruce decided the company would supply food banks with organic coconut oil to provide people with a health alternative to standard cooking oils.

Always generous with his time Bruce has served as a youth leader for his local church for several years and continues to mentor youth. He has been on several not for profit boards including; Whatcom County Pregnancy Center (2003-2006), Natural Products Association (dates?), and the Institute for Natural Medicine Leadership Council (presently).

The Barlean family have been avid supporters of Bastyr University since the 1990’s and in 2013 were given Bastyr’s most prestigious honor, the Mission Award, which recognizes their leadership over time in improving the health and well-being of the human community.

Bruce currently resides in Ferndale, WA with his wife Lisa and their two dogs: Heinz & Shadow. When he’s not helping others he can be found fishing (catch & release).

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Michelle Simon, PHD, ND

President & CEO

As president and CEO of INM, Dr. Simon brings her passion for working with organizations dedicated to improving the quality and delivery of healthcare. This desire stems from her years of practice as a licensed naturopathic physician. In addition to holding a Naturopathic Doctorate from Bastyr University she also holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She has served on boards for the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), the Naturopathic Physicians Research Institute (NPRI), and several advisory boards. Dr. Simon served nine years on the Washington State Health Technology Clinical Committee, as Ambassador to the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine (AIHM) and was recognized as 2018 AANP Physician of the Year. Dr. Simon shares with her husband a passion for adventure travel, preferably by boat or motorcycle. She also enjoys teaching a women’s off-road motorcycling class.